Lest They Be Forgotten

The IDF’s MIA unit leaves no stone unturned in its quest to clarify the fate of every missing soldier.

Members of the MIA research unit prepare to look for evidence of a missing soldier out in the field (photo credit: IDF)
Members of the MIA research unit prepare to look for evidence of a missing soldier out in the field
(photo credit: IDF)
ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2015, a sizable group of mourners gathered at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem to pay their last respects to a young soldier who died more than 67 years earlier, during the war to establish the State of Israel.
From the time that Beirut-born Moshe Aharonov made the ultimate sacrifice until that solemn moment at 5 p.m. on a warm September afternoon, the best part of seven decades later, the young man’s last resting place had been unknown, leaving his family and friends with nowhere to visit and mourn. The circle could not be closed.
During the 1948 battle for Jerusalem’s Old City, Aharonov had been part of a unit entrusted with the mission of relieving the siege of the Jewish Quarter by bursting through Zion Gate. The Jordanian Legion resisted fiercely and six Israelis were killed. Four bodies were recovered and buried. The other two, one of whom was Aharonov, went missing.
Then in 2015, years of painstaking research by the Eitan Missing in Action (MIA) research unit finally brought an end to the mystery of Aharonov’s disappearance. Two investigators, attached to the unit commanded by Lt.-Col.
Yossi Shemesh, determined that an unmarked Jerusalem grave could very well hold Aharonov’s remains. They applied to a judge to have the grave opened, removed a tooth for DNA sampling and waited for the results of a comparison with the DNA of Aharonov’s 100-year-old sister.
“Two and a half weeks before we received the final test results that confirmed it was Moshe Aharonov, his sister passed away,” Shemesh told The Jerusalem Report.
“She died not knowing her long-lost brother had finally been found.”
In a similar case resolved a short time earlier, the body of Yehoshua Haver, who died in the 1948 battle for Ramle, was discovered and positively identified. In a remarkable twist, the investigator who finally solved the mystery was Haver’s own nephew, Ilan.
“On every Memorial Day for fallen Israeli soldiers,” Shemesh recalls Ilan Haver telling him, “my mother would take out the photo of Yehoshua, light a memorial candle and cry that she didn’t have a grave to visit. Now, after the work we did, they have closure, a grave where they can visit, leave flowers, light a candle, and for the family that means a great deal.” Memorial Day this year falls on May 11.
“In this unit, we are utterly determined that for every missing soldier there will be a grave,” Shemesh earnestly tells me.
“When they asked David Ben-Gurion, our first prime minister, where the site of our Unknown Soldier memorial would be ‒ similar to that at Arlington in the US ‒ he said that the IDF would not have an unknown soldier memorial because for every missing soldier there would be a grave with a name. Today, we have 179 soldiers whose place of burial is unknown. A memorial garden to MIAs is located in Mount Herzl National Military Cemetery.
“The majority of MIAs are from the War of Independence, 97 in all,” says Shemesh.
“In the last 10 years, we have found 29 of them. The number was over 200 a decade ago and now we are at 179. The unit was established at the time of the Yom Kippur War, the war in which quite a number of Israeli soldiers were lost and their final resting place unknown.”
The cases of five missing soldiers remain under active investigation; three from the Battle of Sultan Yakoub ‒ Tzvi Feldman, Zachariah Baumel, and Yehuda Katz ‒ who went missing June 11, 1982, during the First Lebanon War. The other two MIAs are IAF navigator Ron Arad, who bailed out of his stricken jet over Lebanon on October 16, 1986 and soldier Guy Hever, who disappeared without a trace on August 17, 1997, on the Golan Heights.
“For me, our work is important not just for the families themselves,” Shemesh explains. “There is also a very important message for those soldiers who are serving today. They know and understand that if, God forbid, something should happen to them, the State of Israel, the IDF, and this MIA unit will do everything in order to return them to their family.
“This is exactly why we continue to search for Ron Arad, and for Guy Hever, the most recent soldier to go missing. This is a real mystery. We continue investing efforts in an attempt to locate him.”
Michal Hershkowitz is an integral part of Shemesh’s team acting as the liaison with the families of missing soldiers. She was there from the start to the conclusion of the high-profile Gilad Schalit case and has long been involved with the families of other missing soldiers, who have not seen their loved ones return home safely.
Schalit’s case was very different from most others the unit handles as there was clear evidence throughout that he was alive and being held by Hamas. For others, though, how long does it take before the family of a missing soldier accepts that there is little or no chance of him being found alive? “The families always hold onto the option that they are still alive,” Hershkowitz tells The Report. “It’s a kind of mechanism that helps them to survive the years.
There are many that say that if they stop believing their loved one is alive they will no longer have a reason to wake up in the morning.
“Even if there are other children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the family continues to grow, it doesn’t matter.
You can’t compare the feeling of losing a son. They listen to what the army is telling them and we understand ‒ from a psychological point of view ‒ their need to believe their missing one is still alive.”
Terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah have tried, on a number of occasions, to convince Israel they were holding live captives in order to facilitate prisoner exchanges. This was the scenario in the case of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose bodies were kidnapped on July 12, 2006, after the armored vehicle they were travelling in on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border came under rocket fire from Hezbollah. Their kidnapping was the trigger for the Second Lebanon War, almost 10 years ago. The role played by the MIA team was pivotal in determining the fate of the missing soldiers.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “held the bodies of the soldiers and even attempted to trade with our unit as if they were alive, even though we knew from our forensic investigation at the scene and the amount of blood there that from the destruction the missile caused, and other signs, the chances were extremely high that they were not alive,” Shemesh states.
“It’s like CSI ‒ it’s the same work.”
One parent who hasn’t give up the search for her son is 84-year-old Miriam Baumel, whose son Zachariah was one of the three Israeli soldiers captured at Sultan Yakoub nearly 34 years ago. She and her late husband, Yona, traveled the world seeking out anyone who could possibly help them find out what happened to Zachariah and the other two soldiers who disappeared that fateful day. Even on his deathbed six years ago, Yona, according to Shemesh, urged Miriam not to give up the search for their son.
“Last year, Michal [Hershkowitz] flew with Miriam twice to London and once to Paris in the search for new information,” he says. “The foreign ministries of both Britain and France have opened archives and gone through papers with us, as we search for any clues.”
Hershkowitz highlights the toll such demanding visits take on Miriam Baumel. “It hurts her so much, not just physically, but mentally, but this is the reason she wakes up in the morning. Two years ago, we met French President François Hollande for 20 minutes, after waiting five hours to see him. You could see the highest-ranking man in France sitting in front of an old lady, a mother, and you could see that he understood what she felt and that he would somehow try and help.”
Surely, I ask, given the many reports over the years over his fate, Miriam Baumel must now accept that Zachariah is almost certainly not alive? “When Yossi met her for the first time, he asked Miriam if she still believes Zachariah is alive,” Hershkowitz recalls. “She told him, ‘For the first 10 years, I was sure he was alive. For the second 10 years, I was not so sure – and in the last 10 years I hope he is not alive.’ ‘Still,’ she continued, ‘this doesn’t mean that I won’t find my son.’” It might seem logical that as time goes by the chance of finding new information that could lead to locating a lost soldier would diminish, but surprisingly the opposite is proving true, Shemesh explained.
“When you reach someone who can finally shed light on the subject, you have to work fast because they are old people, not all are healthy, and some have dementia or other illnesses that limit their recollection and ability to give evidence.
“But, on the other hand,” Shemesh says, “one phenomenon we have noted more and more of late is that people who took part in the wars and have not really spoken of their experiences or offered information, suddenly, when they pass the age of 80, want to share with us what they know. It can be the case that for 10 years we have been asking and they say they don’t remember anything, anf then suddenly they say, ‘OK, I’m now ready to talk.’” “It’s rather like the generation of Shoah survivors, many of whom didn’t share their experiences with their children, but when their grandchildren ask what happened to them during the war, suddenly they are prepared to tell things to the grandchildren that they had never told their own children.
It has been hard for them to keep all this inside for so long, but they get to a point where they realize they may not have much time left and say to themselves, ‘You know what, I’m going to tell my story ‒ before it’s too late.’” Some long-standing mysteries do, unexpectedly, resolve themselves. The missing Druse soldier, Majdi Halabi, was found on October 12, 2012, only as a result of the devastating fires in the Carmel forest close to his hometown of Daliat al-Carmel. He had been missing since May 24, 2005, and his remains were found by a JNF worker clearing burned undergrowth that eventually gave up its macabre secret.
In another case, the bodies of two Palmach spies, David Shemesh and Gidon Ben-David, young immigrants from Iraq to what was then Palestine, were finally recovered and positively identified in 2004 by MIA investigator Chaim Jibli and his late partner Shalom Cohen. Shemesh and Ben-David had been executed by Arabs in Jaffa in 1947 as “Arab traitors” after seemingly withstanding interrogation that would have revealed their spying mission. The resolution of this extraordinary case was the culmination of many years of exhaustive investigations on the part of the tenacious Jibli and Cohen and is the subject of the Hebrew book, “And They Took Their Secret to the Grave.”
This spring, the MIA unit is hoping to close another file with plans to descend to the depths of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), where the remains of IAF pilot Lt.
Yakir Naveh are believed to still lie close to his Fouga Magister jet, which crashed on a training flight on May 6, 1962. The body of cadet pilot Oded Koton, lost in the same disaster, was found in 1963. Two years ago, Naveh’s gun and watch were recovered from the lake, giving investigators much hope that the cockpit of the lost plane, together with the pilot himself, may finally be on the verge of being found in deep water close to Kibbutz Ein Gev.
Regular squabbles over the defense budget are commonplace and widely reported, but according to the Eitan MIA research unit, there has never been any question that whatever resources are necessary will be provided to fund the search and recovery of lost soldiers.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is www.paulalster.com and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster