Israeli Organ Trafficking and Theft: From Moldova to Palestine
In August Sweden’s largest daily newspaper published an article containing grisly evidence suggesting that Israel had been taking Palestinian internal organs. The article, by veteran photojournalist Donald Bostrom, called for an international investigation to discover the facts.1
Israel immediately accused Bostrom and the newspaper of “anti-Semitism,” and charged that suggesting Israelis could be involved in the illicit removal of body parts constituted a modern “blood libel” (medieval stories of Jews killing people for their blood).2
Numerous Israeli partisans repeated these accusations, including Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin, who asserted that the story was “merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of European funded and promoted anti-Israel hate.”3 Others suggested that the newspaper was “irresponsible” for running such an article.4
The fact is, however, that Israeli organ harvesting – sometimes with Israeli governmental funding and the participation of high Israeli officials, prominent Israeli physicians, and Israeli ministries – has been documented for many years. Among the victims have been Palestinians.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley, the founder of Organ Watch, and the author of scholarly books and articles on organ trafficking. She is the pundit mainstream media call upon when they need expert commentary on the topic.5
While Scheper-Hughes emphasizes that traffickers and procurers come from numerous nations and ethnicities, including Americans and Arabs, she is unflinchingly honest in speaking about the Israeli connection:
“Israel is at the top,” she states. “It has tentacles reaching out worldwide.”6
In a lecture last year sponsored by New York’s PBS 13 Forum, Scheper-Hughes explained that Israeli organ traffickers, “had and still have a pyramid system at work that’s awesome...they have brokers everywhere, bank accounts everywhere; they’ve got recruiters, they’ve got translators, they’ve got travel agents who set up the visas.”7
Lest this sound simply like a successful international concern, it’s important to understand the nature of such a business.
As Scheper-Hughes describes it, organ trafficking consists of “paying the poor and the hungry to slowly dismantle their bodies.”
Organ traffickers prey on the world’s poorest, most desperate citizens – slum dwellers, inhabitants of dying villages, people without means or hope. Traffickers promise them what seem like astronomical sums of money (from $1,000 to $10,000) – which they frequently don’t even deliver – in return for vital internal organs.
For traffickers, human body parts are commodities, to be cut out of the bodies of the poor and sold to the rich. The organ “donors” receive no follow-up care and end up worse off on many levels – physically, financially, psychologically, socially – than even their original tragic situation. Sometimes they are coerced into such “donations.”
Organ sales have been illegal in most countries for years. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which covers prevention, enforcement and sanctions in trafficking of humans, includes in its definition of human exploitation the extraction of organs for profit.8 Israel finally passed legislation against organ trafficking in 2008.9, 10
In her Forum 13 lecture Scheper-Hughes discussed the two motivations of Israeli traffickers. One was greed, she said. The other was somewhat chilling: “Revenge, restitution – reparation for the Holocaust.”
She described speaking with Israeli brokers who told her “it’s kind of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We’re going to get every single kidney and liver and heart that we can. The world owes it to us.’”
Scheper-Hughes says that she “even heard doctors saying that.”
For many years Israelis in need of an internal organ have gone on what experts call “transplant tourism” – traveling to other nations to obtain internal organs. Sometimes body parts are obtained from those freshly dead; more often from the desperately needy. While affluent people from numerous countries and ethnicities engage in this practice, Israel is unique in several significant ways.
First, Israelis engage in this at an extraordinarily high rate. According to a 2001 BBC report, Israelis buy more kidneys per capita than any other population.
Second, Israelis have the lowest donor rate in the world – one-fifth that of Europe, according to BBC. This is in part because there has been a widespread impression that Jewish religious law prohibits transplants as a “desecration of the body.”11 The Israeli news service Ynet reports, “the percentage of organs donated among Jews is the lowest of all the ethnic groups.”12
Third, the Israeli government has enabled the practice. For many years the Israeli health system subsidized its citizens’ “transplant holidays,” reimbursing Israelis $80,000 for medical operations abroad. Much of the remaining costs could often be obtained from government-subsidized13 Israeli insurance plans.14 In addition, Israel’s Ministry of Defense was directly involved.
Scheper-Hughes discussed Israeli organ trafficking in detail in 2001 in published testimony to the Subcommittee on International Relations and Human Rights of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.15 In her extensive testimony, Scheper-Hughes stated that although Israel had become a pariah for its organ policies, Israeli officials exhibited “amazing tolerance...toward outlawed ‘transplant tourism.’”
She described an international syndicate which was “organized through a local business corporation in conjunction with a leading transplant surgeon, operating out of a major medical center not far from Tel Aviv,” and which had forged links with transplant surgeons in Turkey, Russia, Moldavia, Estonia, Georgia, Romania, and New York City.
The Israeli Ministry of Defense was directly involved in what Scheper-Hughes called Israel’s “‘illicit [in other nations] national ‘program’ of transplant tourism...Members of the Ministry of Defense or those closely related to them” accompanied transplant junkets.
In her Forum 13 lecture, Scheper-Hughes said that investigating Israeli organ trafficking over the past decade had taken her “from country to country to country to country.”
One of these is Moldova, the poorest country in Europe – and homeland of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – where 90 percent of the people earn less than $2 a day. A 2001 BBC report on organ trafficking described the situation: “Hundreds of Israelis have created a production line that starts in the villages of Moldova, where men today are walking around with one kidney.16
Another is Brazil, where a legislative commission found that 30 [it may actually have been as high as 60] Brazilians from impoverished neighborhoods had sold their kidneys to a trafficking ring headed by Israelis, with Israeli citizens receiving almost all of the organs, and the Israeli government providing most of the funding.17
The ring had also begun inquiring about buying other vital organs from poor residents, including lungs, livers and corneas.18
An Inter Press Service (IPS) news story from the time reported that Scheper-Hughes testified to the commission that international trafficking of human organs had begun some 12 years earlier, promoted by Zaki Shapira, head of kidney transplant services at Bellinson Medical Center, near Tel Aviv.
Scheper-Hughes reported that Shapira had performed more than 300 kidney transplants, sometimes accompanying his patients to other countries such as Turkey. The recipients were very wealthy or had very good health insurance, and the “donors” very poor people from Eastern Europe, the Philippines and other developing countries.
The chairman of the Brazilian commission, physician Raimundo Pimentel, was outraged at Israeli policies, pointing out that trafficking can only take place on a large scale if there is a major source of financing, such as the Israeli health system. Pimentel charged that the resources provided by the Israeli health system “were a determining factor” in enabling a network that preyed on society’s poorest populations.
In 2004 there were reports that Israeli traffickers had added China to their target donor populations.19 In one recent case an Israeli paid an organ broker $100,000 for a kidney transplant in China from an 18-year-old Chinese girl. She received $5,000 and died following surgery.20
New York Times reporter Larry Rohter pointed out that allowing brokers to operate with few restrictions benefited Israel “by exporting Israel’s organ shortage overseas.” Rohter cites a kidney specialist at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem who explained that patients who go abroad “‘save the country a lot of money; not only in terms of what doesn’t have to be spent on dialysis, but also by opening places for other people who are on the list.’”21
Many people find governmental complicity in organ trafficking deeply troubling on moral and philosophical grounds.
As Scheper-Hughes testified: “The sale of human organs and tissues requires that certain disadvantaged individuals, populations, and even nations have been reduced to the role of ‘suppliers.’
“It is a scenario in which only certain bodies are broken, dismembered, fragmented, transported, processed, and sold in the interests of a more socially advantaged population...of receivers.” She believes that the risks and benefits of organ transplant surgery should be more equally distributed among nations, ethnic groups, and social classes.
It is difficult to know how often Israeli trafficking involves outright theft of vital organs from living human beings.
It is not rare for the “donor” to receive little or none of the compensation promised. For example, in 2007 Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that two Israelis had confessed to persuading Palestinians “from the Galilee and central Israel who were developmentally challenged or mentally ill to agree to have a kidney removed for payment.” According to the Haaretz report, after the organ had been taken the traffickers refused to pay for them.
On occasion, people are coerced into giving up their organs. For example, Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, the alleged Brooklyn trafficker recently arrested in an FBI sweep in New Jersey, reportedly carried a gun. When a potential organ seller would try to back out, Rosenbaum would use his finger to simulate firing a gun at the person’s head.
The Rosenbaum case, reportedly part of a ring centered in Israel, is the first case of trafficking to be prosecuted in the US. His arrest and the substantial evidence against him may have surprised State Department Countermisinformation Director Todd Leventhal, who had characterized organ trafficking as an “urban legend,” stating, “It would be impossible to successfully conceal a clandestine organ-trafficking ring.” Leventhal called such reports “irresponsible and totally unsubstantiated.”
More often organ theft involves dead bodies – or those alleged to be dead.
Israel’s very first successful heart transplant, in fact, used a stolen heart.
In 1968 Avraham Sadegat unexpectedly died two days after being hospitalized in Beilinson Hospital in Israel’s Petah Tikva for a stroke. When his family finally was able to retrieve his body (the hospital initially refused to release it) they found his chest covered with bandages; odd, they thought, for a stroke victim. Upon removing these they discovered that the chest cavity was stuffed with bandages and the heart was missing.22
During this time, the Israeli press was heralding the historic heart transplant, performed by a team of surgeons who were to become some of Israel’s most celebrated physicians, among them Dr. Morris Levy, Dr. Bernardo Vidne, and Dr Jack Solomon, who harvested the heart.23
When the family began to ask questions, the hospital denied any connection. After the man’s wife and brother had raised a media furor, petitioned three cabinet ministers – and agreed to sign a document that they would not sue – the hospital finally admitted it was Sadegat’s heart that had been used.
Haaretz quoted Sadegat’s tearful wife: “They treated him like an alley cat. From the moment he entered the hospital, they apparently saw him only as a potential source of organs and not as a man in need of treatment. They only thought about how to do the deed without us knowing.”
Sadegat’s medical condition before his heart was removed has not been made public. It is possible – perhaps probable – that up until his heart was removed it was still beating; according to an Israeli media report, “once a heart stops beating, it is no longer fit for transplantation.”24
Even if he was what is now termed “brain dead,” the general view is that family members should at least be a party to decisions regarding the patient: first, whether to “pull the plug,” and, second, whether to donate an organ. At the time, however, Israeli law allowed organs to be harvested without the family’s consent.
Forty years later the hospital held an anniversary celebration of the transplant, despite the fact that, according to Haaretz, the heart had been obtained “through deceit and trickery.” The festivities, which honored surviving members of the transplant team, featured balloons and a red, heart-shaped cake.
In this incident of organ theft (and from a possibly living body), the family was Israeli. Had the wife and brother been Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, they would not have possessed the power to force a confession from the hospital, and it is likely that those individuals today calling the Swedish article a “blood libel” or “irresponsible journalism” would have applied the same epithets to journalists reporting questions concerning the historic Israeli heart transplant – if any reporters even bothered or dared to do so.
Yehuda Hiss, keeper of the morgue
Perhaps one of the most long-term and high-level cases of organ theft – and one that involves Palestinian as well as Israeli organs – concerns an extraordinarily high official: Dr. Yehuda Hiss, Israel’s chief pathologist and, from 1988 through 2004, director of Israel’s state morgue, the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir.
An early indication of malfeasance came to light in 1998 and concerned a Scottish man named Alisdair Sinclair, who had died under questionable circumstances after being taken into custody at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
The Israeli story, as reported by the Israeli news magazine Jerusalem Report, is that Sinclair had confessed to transporting drugs, even though none were found, although he was in possession of 9,000 German marks ($5,000). He then, the police claim, hanged himself by looping his shoelaces and T-shirt around a towel bar about a meter off the ground and slipped the improvised noose around his neck. From a squatting position, the police story goes, he repeatedly threw his bodyweight downward, choking himself.
Sinclair did not die, however, and medics were able to restore a heartbeat. He was transferred to a hospital where, according to the magazine report, the hospital’s associate director, Dr. Yigal Halperin, said that Sinclair “had suffered irreversible brain damage, and there was little doctors could do for him. Left in a corner of the emergency room, he died at 7 p.m. [It’s unknown whether he had been put on life support.] His corpse was transferred to the Institute for Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir for an autopsy.”
Afterwards, Israeli authorities located Sinclair’s family and gave them three weeks to dispose of the body. They suggested that he be buried in a Christian cemetery in Israel, pointing out that this would be one-third the cost of shipping the body back to Scotland. However, the grieving family scraped up the money to bring him home.
They had a second autopsy performed by Glasgow University, only to discover that Sinclair’s heart and a small bone in his throat called the hyoid were missing. The British Embassy filed a complaint with Israel, and a heart was sent to Scotland. According to the Jerusalem Report, the family “wanted the Forensic Institute to pay for a DNA test to confirm that this heart was indeed their brother’s, but the Institute’s director, Prof. Jehuda Hiss, refused, citing the prohibitive cost.”
Despite a protest from the British government, Israel refused to supply Hiss’s pathology findings or the police report. According to the British government and a report in the Israeli media, around the time of Sinclair’s death a doctor at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital put in a request for a hyoid bone for research purposes – and eventually received a bill for shipping costs.25 Israel retained Sinclair’s $5,000.
Through the years Hiss and the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic medicine continued to be accused of organ theft. In 2000 the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot published an investigative report alleging that Hiss had been extracting organs without permission and then packing the bodies with broomsticks and cotton wool to fill in cavities before burial. The report charged that under Hiss the institute had been involved in organ sales of body parts – “legs, thighs, ovaries, breasts and testicles,” allegedly to medical institutions.
In 2001 a district judge found the Institute had performed hundreds of autopsies and had removed body parts without the families’ permission – and sometimes in direct opposition to their expressed wishes.26 One report described a “museum of skulls” at the institute.
Little was done, however, and complaints continued – often by the parents of dead Israeli soldiers horrified to discover that body parts had been taken from their sons. Finally, in 2004 Israel’s health minister transferred directorship of the morgue itself away from Hiss. Hiss, however, retained his position as Israel’s chief pathologist, a post it appears he holds to this day.27, 28
Hiss had also been connected with two previous national scandals, both of which may have involved powerful people in Israel, which may account for his longevity in Israel’s medical establishment despite years of proven wrongdoing.
The first controversy concerned the “Yemenite Children’s Affair” – a situation, largely from the early 1950s, in which a thousand babies and small children of recent immigrants to Israel had “disappeared.”
When the immigrants had arrived as part of Israel’s “ingathering of the exiles,” babies were immediately taken from their mothers and placed in children’s houses. Many were hospitalized for a variety of ills, and hundreds died, their deaths coming in such large numbers that they were announced over loudspeakers.
The distraught parents often never saw the body or received a death certificate, and there were growing suspicions that not all had died – some, it was believed, had been “given” to Ashkenazi parents. One author writes: “It was a well-known fact within the Jewish community in the United States that if a family wanted a child they could go to [baby brokers, both rabbis] and simply pay the necessary fee.”29
Some Israeli investigators have found considerable evidence for these charges, and indications of complicity at multiple levels of the power structure. In fact, one researcher charges: “People in positions of power at the time that the State of Israel was established profited from the abduction and sale of children from poor immigrant families.”30
Hiss’ connection comes in 1997, when Israel finally had formed a committee to investigate the disappearance of Yemenite and other Jewish children in the years 1948-1954. Among those testifying before this committee was a California woman who had come to Israel searching for her biological mother – and, according to DNA testing by a geneticist at Hebrew University, had found her.
The committee demanded that another DNA test be conducted at the Abu Kabir forensic institute. As at least one observer predicted ahead of time, Hiss’s test came up negative, and the government was allegedly exonerated, despite the fact that the geneticist who had conducted the first tests stood by his results.31
Hiss also plays a role in some conspiracy theories regarding the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, who had begun a peace process with Palestinians. In March 1999 a group of academics presented findings alleging that Hiss had submitted false evidence to the commission that investigated the killing.32
Israelis have also targeted Palestinians, a particularly vulnerable population on numerous levels.
In her congressional subcommittee testimony, Scheper-Hughes reported that before he moved overseas, Israeli hospital transplant head Zaki Shapira had located kidney sellers “amongst strapped Palestinian workers in Gaza and the West Bank.” She said that his “hand was slapped by an ethics board,” and he moved his practice overseas.
For decades numerous Palestinians and others have charged Israel with taking body parts from Palestinians they had wounded or killed.
In her subcommittee testimony, Scheper-Hughes testified that toward the end of the apartheid period in South Africa, “human rights groups in the West Bank complained to me of tissue and organs stealing of slain Palestinians by Israeli pathologists at the national Israeli legal medical institute in Tel Aviv.”
A Washington Report for Middle East Affairs article by Mary Barrett (see “Autopsies and Executions,” April 1990 Washington Report, p. 21) reported “widespread anxiety over organ thefts which has gripped Gaza and the West Bank since the intifada began in December of 1987.”
Barrett quotes a forensic physician: “There are indications that for one reason or another, organs, especially eyes and kidneys, were removed from the bodies during the first year or year and a half. There were just too many reports by credible people for there to be nothing happening. If someone is shot in the head and comes home in a plastic bag without internal organs, what will people assume?”
A 2002 news story from IRNA reported that three Palestinian boys aged 14-15 had been killed by Israeli forces on Dec. 30, their bodies finally being returned for burial on Jan. 6. According to the report: “shortly before burial, Palestinian medical authorities examined the bodies and found out that the main vital organs were missing from the bodies.” In an interview on Al Jazeera, President Yasser Arafat held up photos of the boys, saying, “They murder our kids and use their organs as spare parts.”
Journalist Khalid Amayreh, recently investigating this topic further, found that “several other Palestinians gave a similar narrative, recounting how they received the bodies of their murdered relatives, mostly men in their early twenties, with vital organs taken away by the Israeli authorities.”
Israel has consistently characterized such accusations as “anti-Semitic,” and numerous other journalists have discounted them as exaggerations.
However, according to the pro-Israel Forward magazine, the truth of these charges was, in fact, confirmed by an Israeli governmental investigation a number of years ago.
In a recent story critical of the Swedish article, the Forward actually confirmed its main point, that Israel had been taking the body parts of slain Palestinians. The Forward article reported that one of the governmental investigations into Hiss had revealed that “he seemed to view every body that ended up in his morgue, whether Israeli or Palestinian, as fair game for organ harvesting.”33
Over the years, a great many Palestinian bodies have “ended up” in the Israeli morgue. In numerous cases Israeli occupation forces have taken custody of wounded or dead Palestinians. Sometimes their bodies are never returned to their grieving families – Palestinian NGOs say there are at least 250 such cases.
In other cases the bodies have been returned to the families days later, with crudely stitched naval-to-chin incisions. On many occasions Israeli soldiers have delivered the bodies late at night and required the bereaved families to bury their children, husbands, and brothers immediately, under Israeli military guard, sometimes with the electricity shut off.
In 2005 an Israeli soldier34 described a military doctor who gave “medics lessons in anatomy” using the bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. Haaretz reports: “The soldier said that the Palestinian’s body had been riddled with bullets and that some of his internal organs had spilled out. The doctor pronounced the man dead and then ‘took out a knife and began to cut off parts of the body,’ the soldier said.
“‘He explained the various parts to us – the membrane that covers the lungs, the layers of the skin, the liver, stuff like that,’ the soldier continued. ‘I didn’t say anything because I was still new in the army. Two of the medics moved away, and one of them threw up. It was all done very brutally. It was simply contempt for the body.’”35
While most Israeli investigations into organ theft have largely ignored the Palestinian component, a number of significant facts are known:
While most Israelis strenuously repudiate such beliefs, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, an Israeli scholar on Jewish scriptural views on racism and ethnic chauvinism, has said, “The sad thing is, these statements are in our books.” Greenberg, who was a professor at Hebrew University, pointed out that such Talmudic texts were “purely theoretical” at the time of their writing, because Jews did not have the power to carry them out. Now, he pointed out, “they’re carried over into circumstances where Jews have a state and are empowered.”
While it is impossible to know whether any Israelis have ever acted on such religious permission to kill a non-Jew in order to provide body parts to Jews, some observers have considered this a possibility.
Dr. A. Clare Brandabur, a distinguished American scholar who has lived and traveled extensively in Palestine, writes that the information published in the Swedish article “resonates with reports from Palestinians in Gaza which I heard during the first intifada.”
She comments, “When I interviewed Dr. Haidar Abdul Shafi, head of the Red Crescent in Gaza, I mentioned to him reports of shootings of Palestinian children at times when there were no ‘clashes’ going on – a solitary 6-year-old entering his schoolyard in the morning with his bookbag on his back. The soldiers abducted the wounded child at gunpoint, then his body would be returned a few days later having undergone an ‘autopsy at Abu Kabir Hospital.’”
She says: “I asked Dr. Shafi if he had considered the possibility that these killings were being done for organ transplant, since (as Israel Shahak notes in Jewish History, Jewish Religion), it is not allowed to take Jewish organs to save a Jewish life, but it is allowed to take the organs of non-Jews to save Jewish lives. Dr. Shafi said he had suspected such things but since they had no access to the records of Abu Kabir Hospital, there was no way to verify these suspicions.”
Scheper-Hughes, in her congressional testimony, describes the danger of “organs got by any means possible including (I was told by one guilt-ridden practitioner) chemically inducing the signs of brain death in dying patients of no means and with access to minimal social support or family surveillance.”
Whether or not there have ever been organ-inspired murders in Israel as it appears there have elsewhere, numerous groups around the world are urging an international investigation into Israel’s handling of Palestinian bodies in its custody.
However, the Israeli government and its powerful advocates abroad, who regularly block investigations into Israeli actions, are doing their utmost to prevent this one.36, 37 Several lawsuits have been filed against the Swedish newspaper, the largest by Israeli lawyer and IDF officer Guy Ophir, who filed a $7.5 million lawsuit in New York against the newspaper and Bostrom. Ophir declared that Israel must “silence the reporter and the newspaper.”38
International investigations, of course, have two results: the innocent are absolved, the guilty discovered.
It is clear which category Israel believes it falls into.
An Internet petition calling for an investigation can be viewed at:
Israel-Palestine Timeline: The human cost of the conflict records photos and information for each person who has been killed in the ongoing violence.
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