The IDF has always held a longstanding tradition of being the people’s army. We send our sons and daughters to serve at the age 18, and we ourselves spend years in reserve duty. We’ve been forced to fight war after war to defend the Jewish state.
In return, a pact exists. The people and the army know that in the case of soldiers falling into enemy hands, everything will be done to bring them home. Sometimes it’s alive – like in the case of Gilad Schalit, who was held captive by Hamas for five years and returned in a controversial prisoner swap that saw the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. Other times, the circumstances are grimmer – like that of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose bodies were brought back to Israel for burial two years after they were killed by Hezbollah on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border, in the attack that sparked the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
In the case of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, the soldiers killed in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war and whose remains are still held by Hamas, there is still no closure for the families.
There was certainly no closure for the family of Zachary Baumel who, together with fellow soldiers Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, went missing in June 1982 in a battle near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub.
Baumel’s father, Yona, spent the remaining years of his life tirelessly lobbying government officials and foreign leaders to obtain any information he could from Lebanese and other Arab authorities that would shed light on his son’s fate.
Baumel’s name, along with that of his comrades, faded from the headlines and the public’s consciousness. But, as we learned on Wednesday, the IDF, the Mossad and Israel’s government did not let his memory die.
The dramatic news that – in an operation conducted by intelligence agencies – Baumel’s remains had been discovered and returned to Israel, was a watershed moment demonstrating that the pact is still alive and strong.
This was echoed by the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin soon afterward.
“Today, we are closing a circle,” said Netanyahu, speaking in a live statement after talking to the Baumel family.
“He was considered missing for 37 years. For all those years, the State of Israel had invested immense resources to resolve the riddle of his fate,” the premier said, adding that he was committed to bringing home all of those missing in Israel’s battles.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi emphasized the army’s responsibility to its soldiers, saying that Baumel’s retrieval was part of a multi-year effort.
“On the shoulders of IDF commanders, whom I lead, there is a great obligation to take care of every soldier who joins the IDF and swears allegiance to Israel,” he said.
Demonstrating the personal connection that many citizens feel to the issue, Deputy Defense Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan said he had been part of the artillery force that helped rescue the wounded from the battle of Sultan Yacoub.
“Together with the Baumel family and all the people of Israel, we have waited 37 years for this news,” he said.
Rivlin said on Wednesday night that the entire country is hugging the Baumel family. It’s one of those rare moments when the hyperbole has a large grain of truth.
In Thursday’s Jerusalem Post, Amotz Asa-El reflected on the significance Baumel’s return is having on the State of Israel. He compared it to the Israelites who carried the bones of Joseph from Egypt for 40 years in the desert so he could be buried in the Land of Israel. They didn’t just carry bones; they created a Jewish value of honoring the dead.
This was an emotional event – not just for the family, but for all of Israel. The people of Israel are indeed embracing the Baumel family, and many fathers and mothers will undoubtedly be giving their soldier children an especially forceful hug when they return home for Shabbat.
We, their parents, send our children to the army aware of the pact – but seeing it in action, especially after 37 years, is a salient reminder that we’re not going through this journey alone.
Israel is indeed a special place.