Almost 37 years after Sgt. Zachary Baumel went missing in action during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the 1982 Lebanon War, his body has been returned to Israel for burial.
Baumel’s remains were repatriated via a third country several days ago aboard an El Al flight, following an operation by Israeli intelligence agencies. He was identified by his DNA at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, as well as by Chief IDF Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Eyal Karim, IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis said on Wednesday.The head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj.-Gen. Moti Almoz, personally informed the Baumel family that their son’s remains had been identified. His body was handed over to family members on Wednesday afternoon.
Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu thanked Israel’s intelligence community for its “tremendous efforts” in bringing Baumel back to Israel and said that the military also recovered his tzitzit (religious fringed garment) along with his tank jumpsuit.
“He was a very devoted Zionist – this Zionism led him into the battle in which he fell,” Netanyahu said during a press conference. “He was considered missing for 37 years. For all those years, the State of Israel invested immense resources to resolve the riddle of his fate.”
Recalling his interactions with Baumel’s father, Netanyahu said that “many times, Yona told me in tears that he had one prayer – to find Zachary before he passes away.”
Yona Baumel passed away in 2009 at the age of 81, without ever learning the fate of his son.
“From here in Jerusalem, we say, ‘May his memory be a blessing forever,’” Netanyahu concluded.
The Battle of Sultan Yacoub between the IDF and the Syrian army took place on the sixth day of the First Lebanon War in June 1982 in the Bekaa Valley.
At the end of the battle, the battalion and additional forces had suffered 20 dead and more than 30 wounded, and six soldiers were missing. Eight IDF tanks also fell into Syrian hands, two of which had three missing IDF soldiers who had been involved in two separate incidents about three kilometers apart: Sgt. Yehuda Katz, a gunner in one tank crew, and Baumel and Sgt. Zvi Feldman in another tank.
The fates of the other three soldiers – Ariel Lieberman, commander Hezi Shai and Zohar Lipschitz – were discovered later.
Lieberman and Shai were returned to Israel alive in 1985 via a prisoner exchange deal that took place three years later, while the remains of Lipschitz, who was killed in the battle and buried in Syria, were returned to Israel in 1986.
“This was a long-term effort by the intelligence community and the Missing Persons Division, during which various operational activities were carried out to locate the missing soldiers,” the military said, adding that the IDF is “committed to continuing the efforts to locate Sgt. Yehuda Katz, Sgt. Tzvika Feldman, all the missing soldiers and captives, and all fallen IDF soldiers whose burial places are unknown.”
While Feldman was in the same tank as Baumel when he was killed, Manelis would not comment on whether the body of Feldman would soon be found.
According to Channel 13, nearly a dozen other bodies were brought to Israel in the operation to retrieve the remains of the three missing soldiers. While authorities have completed checking almost all bodies and have confirmed that they are not Feldman and Katz, there is still one left to be analyzed.
President Reuven Rivlin extended his condolences to the Baumel family, saying that after 37 “unbearable years of painful waiting, of questions and doubts,” Baumel has been “brought home to Israel.”
“On this difficult, moving and sad day, our thoughts are with the Baumel family, crying and hurting with them, as they bring their son Zachary to eternal rest in our country, our land,” he said.
“I thank the IDF and the whole Israeli intelligence community for their commitment, bravery and action, day and night, to bring our soldiers and those who fell defending the country and the people home. We will not cease until all our soldiers have returned home... We go to battle together, and together we return from it,” he added.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi commented on Baumel’s repatriation during a ceremony marking the change of the Northern Command, saying that “on the shoulders of IDF commanders, whom I lead, there is a great obligation to take care of every soldier who joins the IDF and swears allegiance to Israel.”
“This was a multi-year effort, during which various studies and operations were carried out to locate the missing persons. The culmination of the effort was a series of operations led by the Intelligence Branch, which led to the identification and return of Sgt. Baumel.”
Manelis wouldn’t say where Baumel had been buried for all these years. But in September, Russia claimed that its military worked with Israel on an operation to locate the remains of fallen IDF soldiers that were in Syrian territory, which had been under the control of Islamic State.
“Israel appealed to Russia with a request for help finding the remains of Israeli servicemen located at specific coordinates in Syria. The search was organized after Russia agreed to the operation with our Syrian partners,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov.
Several months earlier, in May, an official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command claimed that ISIS terrorists had excavated graves in the Jewish cemetery of Damascus, where it had been rumored that the bodies had been buried.
There was no prisoner exchange, Manelis said, explaining that it was an operational mission carried out by Military Intelligence.
According to the military, the negotiation process between Israel and the PLO in 1993 formed “the basis for an intelligence breakthrough” regarding the burial place of the three missing soldiers.
“In November 1993, half of a dog tag that belonged to the late Sgt. Zachary Baumel was handed over to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. This finding, along with partial information provided by [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat, constituted a real and primary source of progress in relation to locating the place of burial of the missing persons,” the IDF said.
This process continued in the second half of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, in the intensive and joint work of a special investigation team established in the Manpower Directorate, which led to the obtaining of reliable and up-to-date information, which allowed the IDF to formulate an intelligence assessment regarding Baumel’s location.
The operation to return Baumel’s remains was led by Col. A. of the Intelligence Branch and had been planned in recent months, Manelis said, adding that the operation culminated a week ago.
His body landed in Israel several days ago.
“We are not saying where his body was found. This operation proves that we never abandoned soldiers missing from Sultan Yacoub. The families know that we will continue to make every effort to bring their sons home,” Manelis said.
According to the military, the families of other missing IDF soldiers – including Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who has been missing in Lebanon since 1986, and Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who have been missing in Gaza since Operation Protective Edge in the 2014 war – were also told that Baumel’s remains had been returned.
“Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and IDF commanders and soldiers embrace all the families, including the Baumel, Feldman and Katz families, in these moments,” the military said.
Baumel will be buried Thursday, April 4 at 7 p.m. at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.