This past Pessah, families around the country responded to the call to reserve a special place at the Seder table not only for Elijah the Prophet but for Israel's missing or kidnapped soldiers - Gilad Shalit, Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser, Eldad Regev, Zecharaya Baumel, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad and Guy Hever. Eight names all emotionally embedded in the minds of Jews the world over.
No place however was reserved for a ninth, Majdi Halabi. His name was not mentioned. The youngest child asking the Four Questions could have added a fifth: "Why is Majdi Halabi different from the other eight soldiers?"
Sadly, if the child had simply asked "Who is Majdi Halabi?" few parents would have been able to answer.
A Druse, Halabi was 19 years old when he disappeared on May 24, 2005. He was in IDF uniform, five months into his basic training and returning from his home in Daliat al-Carmel to his base in Haifa. He never arrived.
The first anyone in the Halabi family knew of his disappearance "was when his commanding officer came to our house two days later and asked, 'Where is Majdi?'" relates Fehmiya Halabi, the distraught mother. "He is such a good boy," she adds, speaking deliberately about her son in the present tense.
Mrs. Halabi holds fast to the belief that he is alive, "not necessarily well, but alive." She has sufficient reason to believe so.
"One would expect that if something physically harmful had happened to him, there would have been some evidence of this, somewhere an item of clothing, something," says Majdi's uncle, Samih Halabi, a retired IDF colonel who established the Organization to Find Missing IDF Soldier Majdi Halabi. "It is not possible for the earth to have swallowed him up - to have vanished without a trace."
Samih relates that as soon as the news broke out of Majdi's disappearance, "We moved into top gear and began an extensive search. We knew from bank records that at approximately 5:15 pm that Tuesday afternoon, he drew NIS 50 from a local ATM in Daliat al-Carmel. We also had information that someone saw him shortly thereafter drinking a can of coke at the town's central bus station, where he would have caught the bus to his base in Haifa."
What happened thereafter is a mystery that to this day has baffled the Halabi family, police, military and government, all the way up to the Prime Minister's Office. "For the first few days we combed the entire Carmel mountain range," says Samih. "We put out appeals over our local cable TV network and recruited over one hundred volunteers - Jews, Christians, Druse and Muslims. People came together to search for Majdi. We had two leads: one that he had been seen by an attendant at a local beach and another that he had been served at a kiosk in Haifa. However, after intense questioning by the police, these sightings proved false. Following a visit by [then] Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to the family's home, a plane was made available and flew over a wide area. Nothing came up. We extended the search to all over Israel: cities, towns, villages - nothing. We were determined to leave no stone unturned, if only to cross off the list all possibilities, no matter how remote."
The police questioned "well-known personalities in the criminal world," but that track also led nowhere, adds Samih, somewhat relieved.
After two years of extensive searching within Israel, "We are left in no doubt that Majdi - like Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev - has been kidnapped. True, we have no direct evidence, but we know that the strategy of the terrorist organizations is to capture unsuspecting Israeli soldiers, and the circumstances are pointing all the time more in this direction. We cannot know by whom, but we feel he is being held in Syria, Lebanon or possibly even in Nablus or Jenin in the West Bank, to be used as a bargaining chip in the future."
Supporting Samih Halabi in the search that has extended beyond the borders of Israel is IDF Lieutenant-Colonel Hasson Hasson, who is not at liberty to disclose any details of his work. Together with the family, "We met with Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert in Jerusalem, who expressed that he shared the family's concern that Majdi may well have been kidnapped. He assured us of the government's full support. Discussions were held with [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas, but again nothing came up. The search continues and there will be no letup until we have answers."
What now needs to be done, says Samih, is to high-profile Majdi's case like the other Israelis "whose fate lies in the hands of the state's enemies. Google any of the eight captured Israelis from Ron Arad to Ehud Goldwasser and numerous reports and articles will appear instantaneously on your computer screen. Then google Majdi Halabi and like all the efforts to trace him, nothing comes up! Why?"
One has only to enter Halabi's hometown of Daliat al-Carmel to realize that what is a non-issue to most Israelis is an all-consuming crusade in the Druse community. Large posters with Majdi's photo hang from the town's streetlight poles. On May 24, a mass meeting in the city hall will draw attention to the campaign to find the missing soldier. Samih, the organizer of this event, says, "Invitations have gone out all across the country to bring everyone on board. We want all Israelis to talk about Majdi as if he is no different to any of the other missing soldiers."
The Israeli Druse community is the only major non-Jewish group whose sons are required to serve in the IDF. Over the past 59 years, the community has forged a covenant of blood with the Jewish state, suffering hundreds of casualties. Not far from where one of Majdi's posters hangs in Daliat al-Carmel, is a memorial center for fallen Druse IDF soldiers, testifying to the supreme sacrifice paid by the community in the defense of the state. Druse soldiers have earned a reputation for being fearless fighters, and in the recent Second Lebanon War the community lost two soldiers in fierce fighting.
Hasson reveals the patriotic zeal of his Druse community when he says that although we are "not Jews, we are Israelis. We believe in a strong Israel and the Druse soldier today is no different from his Jewish comrade in commitment and fighting ability. We feel we are together with the Jewish people, like brothers. We are patriotic and love this country and all its people."
Kamal Mansour, a Druse resident of neighboring Usfiya and Adviser to the President on Minority Affairs, recalls how in October 1945 the then-tiny village of Daliat al-Carmel came to assist fleeing Jewish escapees following the heroic breakout from the British detention camp at Atlit. "They were trying to reach Kibbutz Yagur on the other side of the mountain. I was a young boy at the time and my parents saw these struggling Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, tired and hungry, trudge into the village in the pitch dark; they took some of them in, offering tea and cake and a place to catch their breath. Other Druse families did the same. So you can see how the enriching relationship between Jew and Druse goes back to before the State of Israel was even established. After all, we acknowledged the Jewish State in deed even before there was a Jewish State," says Mansour, who has held the prestigious position of Adviser to the President since the 1960s. "Whatever the temptations in 1948, the Druse community opted against mainstream Arab nationalism and before the draft was introduced, Druse soldiers served as volunteers in the IDF."
During the War of Independence in 1948, many Druse - mainly from the villages of Shfaram, Usfiya and Daliat al-Carmel - cooperated with the Jewish Hagana forces, forging a relationship that led to the creation of the Minorities Unit that recruited Druse volunteers mainly from these three towns. "This trend continued and an increasing number of Druse voluntarily joined the Minorities Unit right up to 1956, when compulsory service was introduced - a decision, by the way, that was initiated by the Druse leadership," says Mansour.
On the second anniversary of Halabi's disappearance, the city of Daliat al-Carmel will be calling on all Israel to stand with the Druse community and "scream from every hilltop 'Where is Majdi?' We want the media to take up the cause," says Samih Halabi. "We also want to extend the investigation abroad, and this will cost money. That is why we have opened a bank account at Bank Hapoalim in Daliat al-Carmel for people to contribute to the campaign to find Majdi."
No different to Jewish parents whose sons are missing, the lives of Nazmy and Fehmiya Halabi, Majdi's parents, are on hold. "There is never a moment when we are not thinking about him. Is he okay? Does he have food to eat, clothing to keep him warm or medicine should he need? It has been too many seasons and I am struggling to cope with this," says mother Fehmiya. "My husband has found other ways to deal with the crisis. He volunteers every day for the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers (Ha'Aguda Lama'an Hahayal). During the Second Lebanon War he used to visit injured soldiers at Rambam Hospital in Haifa and offered his services to help in whatever way he could."
He is also determined that what happened to his son does not happen to other Druse soldiers living in the Carmel. "I am trying to organize a transportation system for our youngsters in the army, so that they can be assured in the future of arriving safely at their bases," says Nazmi.
Where are Gilad, Udi and Eldad, the soldiers whose capture precipitated the Second Lebanon War? They are reported to be alive, but no evidence or communication from them has been provided. Their families live every second between hope and despair. So, too, the family of Majdi from the town of Daliat al-Carmel. For the past two years, Fehmiya has hidden the front door key in "our secret hiding place. Only Majdi knows where to look. I always used to put it there so if he came home late at night he would not have to wake us when he returned. If only I could hear the door open and hear his voice - 'Mom, Dad, I'm home'."
In response to The Jerusalem Post's query about the missing soldier, the IDF issued the following statement: Immediately after the soldier Majdi Halabi was pronounced missing, a special investigation team was established in cooperation with Israel Police. To this day, the police, metzach (Military Police Investigations Division), Anaf Eitan (The IDF's Unit for Locating Missing Servicemen) and IDF intelligence continue to investigate the disappearance and search for his present whereabouts, so far without results.
The IDF is sparing no resources in its attempts to locate the soldier and maintains warm, ongoing contact with the family.
The IDF's Unit for Locating Missing Servicemen acts with the same commitment to all missing soldiers, and believes that everything must be done to bring them home. This the spirit of the IDF, under which we operate.
If you have information
Should you have any information that may help in the search for Majdi Halabi, you may call the parents, Nazmy and Fehmiya at: 04-8394558, 052-648848 or Chairman of the "Organization to Find Majdi Halabi," Retired IDF Colonel Samih Halabi at: 04-8395227.
Bank Hapoalim, Daliat El-Carmel,
Account name: Organization to find Missing IDF Soldier, Majdi Halabi
Account number: 221210