baumel picture 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yona Baumel could be anybody's father and grandfather. I often see him walking, more slowly nowadays and with the aid of a cane, on his way to shul. The same Jerusalem synagogue where my own father prays. Their prayers, however, probably differ. For although I know what Yona Baumel looks like, and I have seen him aging over the years, I have only a hazy idea of how his son Zachary looks. I have an image strictly in black and white based on the photos reproduced periodically in the press.
Zachary Baumel, missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakub in Lebanon I in June 1982, does not age at all. At least not in his pictures. From the point of view of the public, as much as the general public thinks of him at all, "Zack" has been suspended in limbo for 25 years. The family has spent that quarter of a century - a full generation - in hell.
Zachary was a 21-year-old Armored Corps soldier who had almost finished his compulsory service when he was captured. His name - like those of his comrades Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, missing since the same battle - does not trip off the tongue of the average Israeli the way the names Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Udi (Ehud) Goldwasser do.
Yona Baumel attributes it in part to the different circumstances of their abductions. The kidnapping of Schalit by Hamas in June 2006 and the snatching of Regev and Goldwasser by Hizbullah a month later at what turned out to be the start of Lebanon II were sudden and shocking. When Zachary Baumel was taken prisoner it was during a battle in which 21 Israelis lost their lives. Attention was not focused on those captured. And in those days, POWs were expected to be returned.
"IT WAS in the middle of a war," Baumel notes. But while he can perhaps understand the public's attitude, he can clearly neither understand nor accept the attitude of the IDF in the the intervening years.
"I say, 'Don't cheapen yourself by making excuses for the army," he retorts sharply in a phone conversation last week. "The army's behavior when it comes to our son has been immoral. Immoral is not even the word. The IDF claims it will do almost anything to bring an MIA home but it hasn't lived up to that."
Does he feel the IDF has given up? "I don't feel it. I know it," he responds. "The IDF has tried on numerous occasions to write off my son and the other MIAs as dead. But there is no conclusive proof of this."
Baumel blasts the IDF and government for creating a "hierarchy of MIAs."
"A pilot is considered worth more than a ground soldier," he says, noting the huge sums invested, so far unsuccessfully, in seeking the return of IAF navigator Ron Arad, who was downed over Lebanon 21 years ago last week.
Over the years, disgusted by the official system, the Baumels have operated their own network of informants.
It is not easy talking to Yona Baumel about Zack. The native New Yorker's sense of humor easily slips into sarcasm. In many ways it is easier talking to bereaved parents. You know where you stand and they have closure - something sorely missing for the Baumels.
When I see Yona in the neighborhood we tend to talk of "ordinary" things: his grandchildren, my young son, the price of real estate. Life has gone on. Even for the Baumels. Even without knowing what has happened to Zack.
CALLING HIM up in an official capacity is awkward. What can you say to a father in his situation who comments, in the manner of a man who has grown used to media interviews: "You should note that since 1985, not one IDF soldier has been returned alive"?
We're talking, of course, because of the news of the apparent progress in negotiations which could lead to the release of Goldwasser and Regev and the "limited" swap carried out on October 15. Israel exchanged a Hizbullah prisoner and the bodies of two Hizbullah fighters for the body of a drowned Israeli who washed up on Lebanon's shores nearly three years ago. (And strangely, the fact that 27-year-old Ethiopian immigrant Gavriel Daweet was missing at all seems to have been unknown until recently.)
In a televised speech, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said his organization had transmitted to a UN mediator some "information relating to humanitarian issues."
Combined with Germany's announcement last week that it would release Kazem Darabi, an Iranian sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany and believed to be a valuable bargaining chip in gaining information about Arad, this has led to speculation that the "additional information" refers to the missing pilot. Maybe his family will finally learn whether Arad is dead or alive.
It is minor consolation that Nasrallah gave his 15-minute speech from a hiding place. It makes me happy to know that he feels threatened. And it gives one hope that he will, this time, eventually, allow the return of Goldwasser and Regev. Not for moral reasons but to improve his own situation.
There is much talk of the "Ron Arad Trauma." In the first two years after his capture there was at least one occasion in which a deal could possibly have been reached but the government decided the price was too high. Now hopes of his return have again receded. One also fears that Gilad Schalit, presumed to be held in Gaza, could also just disappear - a result of the infighting between Fatah and Hamas and various Hamas groups among themselves.
THE BAUMEL family knows only too well that a child can simply vanish if the political echelons don't push hard enough. They've grown used to being left out of the bargaining. They have watched as the price has gone up and the bartering chips gone down. Worse still, despite the IDF creed not to abandon a soldier in the field, MIAs have been left behind. This happened most (in)famously in what is known as the Jibril Deal. In 1985, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command traded three IDF soldiers for 1,150 terrorists.
Curiously the only person who seems to have broken that cycle is Yona Baumel. In 1989, with the approval of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, he apparently negotiated the return of the body of the Israeli Druse soldier, Samir Assad, with the PLO in Tunis - the only case in the past 20 years in which a one-on-one exchange was made.
Since his son's capture, Baumel has witnessed many exchanges in which Israeli soldiers or at least their bodies have been returned. Three years ago it was the controversial deal with Hizbullah in which more than 400 prisoners were released for the bodies of the three IDF soldiers killed on Mount Dov in 2000, in an attack chillingly similar to the one in which Goldwasser and Regev were captured, and the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum, nabbed by Hizbullah while drug dealing.
"We're happy for the families," he says. "We're not jealous. We just want ours, that's all."
What does he want the government and IDF to do? "Just to do what they are supposed to."
Yona Baumel could be anybody's father. Zack Baumel could have been anybody's son. No Israeli can really sleep easily until he comes home.