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April 3, 2019 1:17 pm

After 37 Years, Body of IDF Soldier Missing in Lebanon Returns to Israel

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

IDF Sergeant Zacharia Baumel, missing for 37 years, whose body was returned to Israel in April 2019. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Office.

Thirty-seven years after he was listed as missing in action, the body of IDF soldier Zacharia Baumel has been returned to Israel for burial.

Baumel was one of three soldiers listed as missing in action following the battle of Sultan Yacoub in southern Lebanon during the First Lebanon War. The battle, which took place on June 10-11, 1982, was between Israel and the Syrian army, and is considered to be one of the most brutal engagements of the war, with 20 Israeli soldiers killed. Along with Baumel, soldiers Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman went missing and have not been found.

There is evidence that the three men may still have been alive on June 21, 1982, when they were reported to have been involved in a public display before Syrian soldiers. In 1995, half of Baumel’s dog tag was given to Yitzhak Rabin by PLO chief Yasser Arafat.

Baumel’s mother, Miriam, is American-born.

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According to Hebrew news site Walla, IDF Spokesman Ron Manelis announced the news regarding Baumel on Wednesday by stating, “Over the years many operational, investigative, and intelligence efforts were made by the IDF, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, and the MIA Accounting Unit. Efforts in the last few months allowed us to bring the body to Israel, and it is now located at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir.”

Manelis said that Baumel’s body was not returned thanks to a deal with Lebanon or Syria, but due to the intervention of a third country. Lebanese media has reported that the third party was Russia.

“There was no deal here,” said Manelis, “but rather operational activity. I wish I could tell you the stories of heroism.”

Asked if there was a connection between Baumel’s return and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Russia, Manelis said, “I don’t want to respond.”

According to Israeli news site Mako, Netanyahu called the return of Baumel’s remains “one of the most emotional moments in all my years as prime minister of Israel. For all these years the state invested enormous efforts to return the missing of the battle of Sultan Yacoub, and Zacharia’s bones, which were brought to Israel, have been identified with certainty.”

“We will continue to invest every effort in order to return to Israel all of the fallen and we will not desist from this sacred mission — today we have closed a circle,” he added.

President Reuven Rivlin also commented, saying, “We have received the moving and painful news that the body of First Sergeant Zachary Baumel of blessed memory has been brought home to Israel. Thirty-seven unbearable years of painful waiting, of questions and doubts, have come to an end thanks to the determined and ceaseless work of the IDF and Israel’s intelligence community.”

“On this difficult, moving and sad day, our thoughts are with the Baumel family, crying and hurting with them as they bring their son Zachary to eternal rest in our country, our land,” he added. “I thank the IDF and the whole Israeli intelligence community for their commitment, bravery and action, day and night, to bring our soldiers and those who fell defending the country and the people, home.”

“We will not cease until all our soldiers have returned home — First Sergeant Yehuda Katz, First Sergeant Zvika Feldman, and all those missing in action and whose place of burial is not known,” he said. “Our commitment to our soldiers has always been, and will always be, a shining light. We go to battle together, and together we return from it.”

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said of the news, “That we have brought Sergeant Baumel’s body for burial in Israel after years of effort is a testimony to the IDF’s deep commitment to returning our sons to our borders.”

Lieutenant Colonel Avi Kalo of the IDF’s MIA Accounting Unit called Baumel’s return “an emotional event” and a “landmark.”

“The process would not have been realized without true collaboration for many years between all the elements of the intelligence community and the IDF,” he added.

Regarding the other two missing soldiers of Sultan Yacoub, Manelis said that locating Baumel’s body “allows for the continuation of efforts” to locate other MIAs. “The head of the MIA Accounting Unit is talking with the families. Very emotional conversations. The families know today that we will make every effort to return everyone. What we saw today was proof of this commitment.”

Prichya Heyman, sister of missing soldier Yehuda Katz, said she responded to the news with “enormous emotion.”

“I have mixed feelings,” she added. “On the one hand, enormous pain; on the other, I’m sure that a weight has been lifted from the hearts of the Baumel family, because there is no happiness like the removal of doubts. Zacharia’s family has won the right to bring him to burial in Israel. This isn’t an easy thing.”

“I thank the IDF, which took upon itself the goal of returning the missing home,” she said. “I hope Yehuda will return alive, and I won’t lose hope until I see, God forbid, his body lying before me.”

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