Earlier this year a Swedish journalist claimed that soldiers and doctors at the L. Greenberg Institute for Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, Israel, killed Palestinians for their organs.

The Israeli government originally dismissed the accusations as vicious anti-Semitic rumors, but was forced to acknowledge that there was some truth to the claims when an American anthropologist released an interview she had conducted in 2000 with the former head of Israel's main forensic institute, Dr. Jehuda Hiss.

In that interview, Hiss stated that body parts including corneas, arteries, and bones were taken from dead bodies — Israeli, Palestinian, and others — without consent during the 1990s and transplanted into wounded soldiers. The Israeli military then admitted the procedures had been done but stated that the practice had ended 10 years ago.

Global phenomenon

International organ theft has made news before. Last year an Indian doctor, Amit Kumar, was arrested in Nepal, accused of being the leader of a "kidney theft ring" that supposedly took up to 500 kidneys from unwilling donors over the past nine years. Rumors circulated that Indian peasants were forced to give up their organs at gunpoint, though the accusations remain unproven and Kumar has not been tried nor convicted.

Organs have also been taken from executed Chinese prisoners. Although the Chinese government claims that such organ harvesting is rarely done and then only with the consent of the prisoners, several respected human rights organizations claim otherwise.

A 1994 Human Rights Watch/Asia report documented proof that some condemned prisoners are killed quickly and their organs taken from them immediately after the execution. It further concluded that executed prisoners were the "principal source" for transplant organs in China; a similar conclusion was reached by Amnesty International.

Closer to home, the border between the U.S. and Mexico border has also been the site of organ theft accusations.

One or more killers have preyed on dozens of young Mexican women near Juarez. In April 2003, a Mexican Assistant Attorney General announced that some of the victims may have been killed for their organs, which were then transplanted into rich Americans. No evidence has emerged supporting that claim, and the Juarez organ theft story remains more rumor than fact.

Rumor obscure facts

The claims about Israel's organ theft are not quite rumor, but not quite fact. The issue is of course freighted with polarized religious and political baggage; the Israeli government is downplaying the admission as irrelevant history, while the Palestinian press is calling it proof that their citizens and soldiers are being killed for their body parts.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle: There is no evidence that the premise of the original newspaper story — that Israeli soldiers killed Palestinians for the purpose of harvesting their organs — is true. (Often the very act of killing the victims would render many of their organs unusable; if you want to use a man's vital organs, for example, you don't shoot him in the chest.)

However, the admission by Dr. Hiss, especially in light of previous governmental denials, exposes a very real (and unethical) organ scandal. Body part theft? Yes. Murder for body parts? No. As often happens in sensational news stories about organ theft, rumor obscures the facts.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.