Israeli soldiers are finding Judaica in Gaza — and trying to locate the items’ owners
Or, a solider fighting in Gaza, displays a seder plate he found in the territory. Photo: Courtesy of Or

By Deborah Danan
July 5, 2024

(JTA) — The commander of a small Israeli military drone unit in Gaza was on a routine reconnaissance mission with his team in an apartment in Rafah when one of his soldiers came across an object that looked strikingly out of place: a wood laminate challah board framed with the biblical injunction to “remember the Shabbat” in gold lettering, in Hebrew and English.   

The commander knew that he was allowed to take property only if he needed to use it to fight the war, which didn’t apply here. But he wasn’t sure what to do. 

“We’re definitely not allowed to take them as souvenirs or anything like that,” said the soldier, named Yoya. Military regulations prohibit soldiers from giving their full names to the press. “Stealing is forbidden and it’s also immoral. But in this case, when I saw that this was a Jewish item I said, ‘this can’t be theirs.’”

So he tried to locate the owner of the challah board by posting a photo of it on Facebook. While the post garnered 1,400 reactions and nearly 250 comments, nobody claimed the ritual object. 

Similar posts have cropped up in the more than eight months since Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza at the end of October. Two weeks before Passover, another post made the rounds on social media — and was published in an Israeli news outlet — calling for the owners of a Seder plate found in a home in Khan Younis to claim their lost property. 

In December, Yoya’s brother, Elisha, also an IDF soldier, found a Hanukkah menorah in the shape of a hamsa, a hand-shaped symbol, in a home in Khan Younis. The post said, without elaborating, that the menorah had “probably been taken on October 7” amid looting during the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel. 

Other troops who have encountered Judaica in Gaza have made the same assumption. Maj. (res.) Maor Lavi likewise found a menorah in what he described as the home of a terrorist in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, alongside weapons, military uniforms and equipment.  Lavi told Israel’s public broadcaster Kan that he had a “gut feeling” it was stolen on October 7. 

“Next to the bed, we just saw the menorah sticking out on top of one of the dressers. We took it,” Lavi said. “I would really want to return it to its owner and find the person, the family it belongs to.”

His unit lit the menorah on the seventh and eighth nights of Hanukkah. Shortly after the incident, Lavi, a father of four, was killed. 

In response to inquiries, the Israel Defense Forces detailed its regulations regarding seizing property, though it did not specifically address the issue of Judaica. More broadly, Israeli military looting has been an issue during the war. 

In February, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi called on soldiers “not to take anything that is not ours — be it a souvenir or a piece of military equipment.” Three months later, Israel’s Military Advocate General, Maj-Gen Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, announced that the IDF was investigating 70 incidents of suspected violations of the laws of war by IDF soldiers, including looting. Several soldiers have been indicted for alleged looting from Palestinians in recent years — including during operations in Gaza.

“As part of the fighting and subject to the military protocols, it is possible to use enemy property for military necessity, as well as take property that belongs to the terrorist organizations subject to the protocols regarding booty of war,” the spokesperson said. “Taking property in ways that are not in accordance with army protocols is prohibited by law. Incidents in which forces did not behave in accordance with protocols and the law will be examined.”

Lt. Col. (res) Maurice Hirsch, former director of the IDF’s Military Prosecution in the West Bank, noted that while there is no way to fully ascertain whether the menorah and objects like it were stolen, nor whether they were taken on Oct. 7 or beforehand, there is evidence of looting of Israeli homes and businesses by Palestinians on October 7. Prior to the attack, more than 18,000 Gaza Palestinians worked legally in Israel, so it’s possible they acquired the items then.

According to its author, Asa Kasher, violations like looting fly in the face of the IDF’s Code of Ethics, which stresses the “purity of arms.”

“It means that you use your military force only for certain purposes, for the purposes of fighting a war which is justified,” he said. “And looting is using your force in a wrong way, and therefore it is absolutely forbidden.”

But Kasher said that given the sheer scale of the current war – in which 300,000 reservists were called up in addition to regular soldiers — isolated incidents of looting, even if they number in the dozens, are statistically negligible and not indicative of the military’s broader conduct.

“It’s not the IDF. It’s the criminal margins that are expected if you have that quantity of people participating,” he said.

In the case of Jewish ritual artifacts, there is “cause to believe that they have been stolen and so soldiers would be entitled to seize those items and attempt to return them to their lawful owners,” Hirsch said. He added that as they attempt to return the items, the soldiers need to provide detailed documentation of where the objects were discovered, so that if the original owners were not identified, the artifacts could potentially be returned to the place from which they were taken.

He added however, that the IDF may harbor concerns over making exceptions for Judaica and ritual items, which “could give rise to a lapse of judgment by the soldiers where they would be taking property which is not even reasonably thought to be stolen — and that’s looting.”

Kasher asserts that a formal procedure should be in place for handling such items, where soldiers report them up the chain of command rather than taking them to their homes. “If taking the item is justified, it must be done by the state, not by the soldier,” he said.

To date, the seder plate and menorahs all lay unclaimed. Still, that hasn’t dampened Yoya’s hope to find the owner of the challah board. 

“I really wish we’ll find who it belongs to, because it definitely doesn’t belong in Rafah,” he said. 

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