Wrap your heads around this: Terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) cooperated with Israeli intelligence to bring home the body of an IDF soldier who went missing in action for 37 years ago.
That wild possibility may have led to the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel being repatriated this week after the culmination of two-year long Operation Bittersweet Song.
Based in Syria and headed by Ahmad Jibril, PFLP-GC is an offshoot of the PFLP and is violently opposed to any peace with the Jewish State. The group was involved in dozens of deadly attacks against IDF troops in southern Lebanon and Israeli civilians during the 1970s and 1980s.
While the IDF maintains that there had been no negotiations or prisoner exchanges for Baumel’s remains, in 1982 the PFLP-GC swapped three kidnapped Israeli reservists – Yosef Grof, Nissim Salem and Hezi Shai – who had been taken captive during the Second Lebanon War in exchange for the release 1,150 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
That prisoner exchange, known as the Jibril Agreement, took more than a year to negotiate and many of those released later became leaders of the First Intifada which broke out in 1987.
Over the years, the PLFP-GC has limited its activities to training and equipping other terrorist groups rather than staging violent attacks against Israel.
So over 30 years later, has the PFLP-GC changed? Has it now cooperated with its main enemy?
IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis on Wednesday refused to say which country helped find Baumel’s remains, saying only that a “third-party” was involved. But on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country’s troops along with Syrian forces located Baumel’s body.
“Russian military forces, together with the Syrians, located the body of Zachary Baumel,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a brief meeting in the Kremlin.
PFLP-GC, which has strong ties to the regime of Bashar Assad, took part in heavy fighting during Syria’s civil war including in the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus where Baumel’s body is said to have been found.
The spokesperson of the group, Anwar Raja, was quoted by the Beirut-based al-Mayadeen television station that Baumel’s remains were found in the old Martyrs Cemetery in coordination with Israeli intelligence.
According to Raja, militants found Baumel’s body as they were excavating graves in the cemetery in the Yarmouk camp earlier this month after a woman was arrested carrying two bags of soil from the cemetery. Syrian troops who arrested the woman sent the bags of soil to authorities for DNA analysis.
Where those bags with remains sent to Russia for analysis?
The cooperation with Israeli intelligence mentioned by Raja is likely to have been through Russia, which came to Assad’s aid in September 2015 and is considered the main superpower in the messy Middle-East and which was approached by then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.(ret.) Gadi Eisenkot following a request by the families of the three missing soldiers.
During Netanyahu’s snap visit to Moscow, the Israeli leader said that he had approached Putin two years ago “with a personal request to help us find the remains of the soldiers, including Zachary Baumel.”
Israeli intelligence, which for years has worked tirelessly on the case of the three missing soldiers, likely had precise intelligence and the now had an opportunity to push for more information on the location.
Jerusalem likely asked Moscow to have militants on the ground familiar with the rumors of where they were buried do the dirty work of excavating the graves, even if that meant the PFLP-GC.
It took 37 years, but the close ties with the Middle East’s new strongman who gave orders to Palestinian militants brought Sgt. Baumel home.