Six days after Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 went down minutes after take-off, killing all 157 people on board, and following heavy pressure from the Israeli government, the local authorities on Saturday allowed a team of volunteers from Israel's ZAKA search and rescue organization to begin the hunt for the remains of the two Israelis on board the plane.
Shimon Ram, a 59-year-old security expert from Zichron Yaakov, and Avraham Matzliah, a 49-year-old businessman from Maale Adumim, both perished in the crash.
Ethiopian Airlines announced Saturday that the DNA testing process to identify the victims and collect the bodies could take up to a year and a half. Instead, they offered each bereaved family a kilogram of land from the scene of the crash so they could hold funerals.
Ram's family said they sought the assistance of President Reuven Rivlin in bringing his body to Israel.
"We have asked the president for help. Recent efforts to identify bodies are progressing slowly and we still do not know when he will be buried in Israel," the family said.
The ZAKA team was accompanied by Israel's Ambassador to Ethiopia Raphael Morav, Consul Opher Dach and representatives of the Ram and Matzliah families. ZAKA volunteers regularly attend the scene of road accidents and terror attacks in Israel, where they gather body parts and help identify victims. The name is an acronym of the Hebrew phrase "Zihui Korbanot Ason" (identification of disaster victims).
The search for the remains of the bodies began following permission from the local authorities. Prior to receiving approval, ZAKA accused the Ethiopian government of disrespecting the victims and denying them their dignity in death. "We have never seen such behavior in 30 years of handling disasters in Israel and around the world," ZAKA said.
According to the ZAKA team on the ground, locals looted the scene of the disaster as soon as the plane crashed. They said that the locals had overrun the site with tractors and bulldozers, ignoring the dead bodies and descerating of the honor of the victims. The looters, they said, covered over the site even as it was strewn with the remains of the dead and their possessions.
Israel's Foreign Ministry worked throughout the week for permission for the ZAKA volunteers to complete their work. Their efforts, not to mention a personal request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were in vain until Saturday night.
"We found hair, teeth, body parts," said ZAKA volunteer Elazar Samet. "We are making great efforts, alongside with ambassadors of other countries. We have found passports, documents, pictures. We began digging with our hands. We will do everything to help as many people as possible regardless of religion, race or gender."
Rivlin spoke on Friday with his Ethiopian counterpart Sahle-Work Zewde, and thanked her for allowing the Israeli team to search the area.
"Israel will go anywhere in the world to bring home our loved ones," Rivlin said. "Please allow us to continue our search in the broadest way possible."