It is almost 24 years to the day that the Battle of Sultan Yakoub took place. This battle is forever imprinted in our hearts as three captured soldiers, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, remain unaccounted for to this day.
For the families of these brave souls, the current war has reopened old wounds that have never healed.
One cannot but be struck by the dramatic differences in the Israeli government and IDF responses then and now.
In 1982, the Battle of Sultan Yakoub occurred at the very end of the conflict. The armored corps had been called up to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon to stop supplies from arriving on the Damascus-Beirut highway. The actual battle took place at the time that a cease-fire was being finalized.
The intelligence report on this battle has never been publicly released by the IDF, and it should be noted that this is the only battle in the history of the Jewish state that such a report has not been released after a reasonable period of time.
The belief of the families and many other experts is that mistakes in the operational planning, communications, intelligence evaluations and post-battle errors were overwhelming.
IN ORDER to understand the errors, one must recall the atmosphere at the end of Operation Peace for Galilee. The minister of defense at the time was Ariel Sharon and the acting commander of the Northern forces was Ehud Barak; both of whom had had remarkably excellent military careers until that point. In fact, both eventually became prime ministers of the Israel specifically based on platforms of their military prowess.
The battle was a catastrophe from a planning and follow-up standpoint. Most accounts support that there were communications breakdowns at the highest levels of the Israeli command, and an ignoring of intelligence reports stating the extreme danger of the operation given to these troops.
The valley itself was a virtual shooting gallery with PFLP and Syrian forces at all strategic points where the tanks and ground troops were to enter Sultan Yakoub, a small village.
There was also information that these strategic positions held by the enemy were manned by significant anti-tank weapons capable of destroying the advancing armored unit.
THE BATTLE itself lasted almost 24 hours, with horrific loss of Israeli life: 22 dead, 75 injured, many seriously, and six captured. The battle scene was in disarray. There was an atmosphere of shock and disbelief on the part of the IDF.
I interviewed several soldiers who were involved in the following day's cleanup and recovery operation. Most asked why the battle had not been planned and carried out in a safer fashion for the troops involved.
Later on during the day of the battle a tank was paraded through the streets of Damascus and villages in transit to the capital. There were many eyewitness accounts, as well as a large number of news agency reports on the tank and on the three Israeli soldiers on it being beaten and taunted by the bloodthirsty crowds that surrounded it.
The failure of an Israeli response at the time was in complete contrast to the current response to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and the two soldiers nabbed by Hizbullah.
WHAT THE Israeli government did in Gaza and on the Lebanese border was what should have been done 24 years ago - a dramatic diplomatic and military response. The lack of such a response allowed the Syrians to ignore international covenants which guide all nations at war, specifically the Geneva Convention for the treatment of captives.
Rather than acknowledge the errors made on that fateful day, the government and IDF in 1982 asked the families to remain silent so that the details could be sorted out and a solution found
It never materialized. In fact, what followed in years to come was a lack of acknowledgement by the IDF of a wealth of information on the captives.
One can only assume that the backtracking that occurred was done with the specific intention of covering up for the inappropriate IDF response at the time of battle, and in the days and weeks following.
IT IS FOR this reason that the families of the Sultan Yakoub Three must now relive the horrors of 24 years of suffering, not knowing what happened to their sons.
The current actions of the Israeli government should be commended and fully supported. However, this should only reinforce the belief that its actions 24 years ago were impotent and inappropriate.
Rather than continuing to oppose these special families, they should simply say: We're sorry. This apology has never been issued, and likely never will be. The Sultan Yakoub wound will continue to fester until true repentance by the government and IDF occurs.
With Ariel Sharon no longer a factor and the manner in which Ehud Barak pulled the army out of Lebanon an embarrassment, the time has come for the IDF to actively campaign for the return of Feldman, Katz and Baumel.
Strong support from the American-Jewish community would help the process. There is legislation by the US Congress in place; it must now be used vis-a-vis the Syrians.
More importantly, any prisoner swap that takes place in the following weeks must include Baumel, Katz and Feldman, dead or alive.
The Syrians will be a party to any current negotiations on final status in Lebanon. They cannot be allowed to again get away with the crime of omission of not returning the Sultan Yakoub Three.
AS REGARDS the families of the recent captives, we can only continue to pray that the Israeli government will have learned from the mistakes of 24 years ago and will not relax their military efforts until all the boys are returned home safely.
The writer, an author and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the New York University School of Medicine, is founder of the Committee for the Release of Zachary Baumel.
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