Copyright 2002 Jerusalem Post
June 14, 2002
HEADLINE: Missing In Action
BYLINE: Gail Lichtman
Twenty years after the Battle of Sultan Ya'akoub, the families of three soldiers who fought there have yet to discover whether their sons are dead or alive.
May 2000: As the final half-track crossed the border fence between Israel and Lebanon and the metal gate swung closed, Israelis issued a collective sigh of relief. After 18 years, the war in Lebanon had ended.
But no war is ever really over until all the boys have returned home. And four soldiers from that war - Zachary (Zack) Baumel, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, and Ron Arad - have still not come home.
This week marked 20 years since the Battle of Sultan Ya'akoub, the battle in which Baumel, Feldman, and Katz went missing.
Until Sultan Ya'akoub, no Israeli soldier was ever held in captivity for more than two years. (Missing IAF navigator Ron Arad bailed out over Lebanon on October 16, 1986. Sgt. Adi Avitan, St.-Sgt. Binyamin Avraham and St.-Sgt. Omar Suwayed were abducted by Hizbullah on October 7, 2000 near Mount Dov and later the IDF ruled they were "highly likely" to have been killed while Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum was kidnapped by Hizbullah from Europe the same month.)
Over the years, there have been many reports indicating that at least some of the MIAs may still be alive.
This week Israel released a Lebanese man, Muhammad Abbas al-Barazawi, 39, jailed for the last 15 years, in what officials termed a confidence-building measure to aid in a possible future release of Israeli captives and MIAs currently held by the Hizbullah.
And although officially Syria has denied knowledge of their whereabouts, Syrian officials (and Palestinians as well) have made many references to information in their possession regarding the MIAs' fate.
In 1993, Yasser Arafat even turned over half of Baumel's dog tag to an adviser of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, pledging that more information would be forthcoming.
Nevertheless, neither Arafat nor any other Syrian or Palestinian official has ever disclosed concrete information concerning the MIAs to Israel or the US.
Baumel was 21 at the time of Sultan Ya'akoub. Born in the US, he immigrated when he was 10 with his parents and older brother and sister. He chose to do his army service in the framework of the hesder program at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut and was in his last 10 days of service when the war broke out. He had already registered to study psychology at the Hebrew University the following fall and had plans to work during the summer with youth from abroad as part of a Jewish Agency program.
Feldman, who was 25 when he went missing, was named for his paternal grandfather who was killed in the Holocaust. As the firstborn child, his birth was regarded by his father, the sole survivor of his family, as a sign that the Nazis had not succeeded in obliterating the Feldman line. Quiet and easygoing, he liked drawing and dancing. He had worked as a hiking and camping guide for high school groups.
Katz, the son of Holocaust survivors, was nearly 23 that summer. As a child, he showed extraordinary scholastic ability and developed a passion for religious studies. He divided his time between Yeshivat Kerem Beyavne and the Armored Corps. His dedication to study was legendary. Usually sleeping only a few hours a night, he spent the vast majority of his time in the yeshiva's study hall.
On June 10, 1982, the fifth day of Operation Peace for Galilee, a tank unit was dispatched to the Beirut-Damascus highway to secure the road and block a Palestinian retreat. Now regarded as one of the biggest blunders of the war, Sultan Ya'akoub resulted in the deaths of 21 soldiers and the capture of five (two of whom were later returned).
Due to a failure to provide the regimental commander with vital intelligence concerning the deployment of Syrian troops and Palestinian forces, the 11-tank unit soon found itself surrounded near the village of Sultan Ya'akoub.
After an entire night of intense fighting, the regiment commander ordered his tanks to make a run for it back to Israeli lines. The tank, commanded by Hezi Shai, and manned by Baumel (the driver), Feldman and Arye Lieberman, was the last in this retreating convoy. Hit by a shell, the turret became snagged in a tree. The crew tumbled out and took cover in an orange grove.
What happened after that becomes unclear. Shai, who was captured and returned in the 1985 prisoner exchange with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, initially claimed that Lieberman (who was returned in 1984) told him Baumel was dead. In their debriefings, both supposedly claimed they called to Baumel and tried to move him. Later, the two said they did not recall this, and Lieberman denied he ever told Shai that Baumel was dead. However, both did recall that Feldman had a large wound in his head.
Shai and Lieberman left Baumel and Feldman. That night, they became separated. Shai walked into a position of Ahmed Jibril's PFLP, and Lieberman was captured by the Syrians.
Katz was in another tank that was hit by a shell and caught fire. One crew member, Zohar Lipschitz, was killed. Another was hurled out unharmed. The driver, Yehuda Kaplan, stayed behind with Katz, who was trapped in the back. Unable to extricate Katz, Kaplan, who was apparently in shock, abandoned the tank. He claimed that Katz was not breathing and did not have a pulse.
Later, under hypnosis, Kaplan provided information that led the army to conclude he did not know for sure that Katz was dead when he left the tank.
The Sultan Ya'akoub families have never received conclusive proof that their sons were captured, unlike Arad's family, which received a photograph and letter from Ron in 1987, about a year after his capture.
However, several hours after the battle, Western journalists from Time magazine, Associated Press, and La Stampa, as well as the Syrian media, reported that three Israeli soldiers from a tank crew were paraded through Damascus in a "victory march." But the visual images from this parade are so unclear that no positive identifications could be made.
On July 4, 1982, Palestinian military personnel and members of the Syrian secret police delivered four bodies to the Damascus Jewish cemetery.
The Syrians claimed the bodies were those of missing Israeli soldiers. This claim led the IDF to conclude that since four soldiers were missing from Shai's tank, the bodies were those of Shai, Lieberman, Baumel and Feldman. It also caused the IDF to seriously downgrade its efforts to find the four during a critical period. In October 1983, the Red Cross was permitted to exhume these bodies. Contrary to the Syrian claims, only one of the bodies was found to be that of an Israeli soldier - Zohar Lipschitz, from Katz's tank.
Over the years, reports indicating that the MIAs are alive have come from numerous sources, including Rifat Assad (brother of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad), ex-Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, French President Jacques Chirac, East German intelligence, Christian clergymen, the Arab and Western media, Amnesty International, and even the late Hafez Assad himself.
The Baumel, Feldman, and Katz families have spent the past 20 years swinging between hope and despair, never totally sure whether their sons are alive or dead. It has meant 20 Pessahs, 20 Rosh Hashanas, and more than 1,000 Shabbats sitting
And at a recent press conference held by the coalition marking Guy Hever's 25th birthday, Yona Baumel was the only member of another MIA family present. When Rina Hever, Guy's mother, faltered, he gently clasped her hand in sympathy and encouragement.
"Twenty years is really just one day at a time," states Yona. "We never dreamed it would last this long. After 10 years, I said 'enough,' but it goes on. As long as there are signs that Zack is alive and there is hope of bringing him home, we keep on. He is our son and we obviously care more than even the most devoted civil servant."
Rethinking Arad's Fate
The Case of Guy Hever
|On June 2, Rina Hever threw a 25th birthday party for her son, Guy, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem. Not something out of the ordinary, except that Guy has been missing since August, 1997.
The case of Guy Hever is probably one of the strangest MIA cases in the IDF's files. Guy was last positively seen on August 17, 1997 at 9:30 a.m. inside his base on the Golan Heights. One minute he was there, the next he was not. No one has ever taken responsibility for his disappearance.
The IDF at first refused to consider Guy an MIA. Because he was awaiting trial, the army initially insisted he had gone AWOL or committed suicide.
Although the army did not start searching for Guy the first day he disappeared, the area around the base was eventually thoroughly searched. No trace was found of Guy, who was wearing his army fatigues and carrying his weapon when he vanished.
Later, a psychologist from the Golan Heights said he saw Guy waiting for a lift at the Kabazia intersection not far from the Syrian border.
"How did I learn that Guy was missing?" relates Rina. "Did the army come to my house to tell me? No. They telephoned at 4 p.m. and said that Guy was missing and I should look for him at home. Then, every half an hour, someone would call and ask if I had found him. The army accused us of hiding him. Later, the army came to our house in Kochav Yair and took the hard drive from Guy's computer and other personal items. Instead of concentrating its efforts on Syria, the army was fighting us.
"Guy's disappearance was so mysterious that it was easy for the army to forget about him," Rina continues, "and it hampered efforts to find him. There is literally no point at which to start and no address. We had to fight the authorities to have Guy recognized as an MIA."
Only after nine months was Guy Hever officially recognized as an MIA. His mother claims this is legal recognition only and has not resulted in any action to find him.
Relations between the Hevers and the IDF were so bad at one point that they are the only MIA family to have an official family intermediary - businessman Shimon Mizrahi - to serve as a liaison.
The situation has improved recently and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the Mossad to try to find information about Guy.
"Why did we have to fight five years for this?" Rina asks. "The state has to investigate that Guy is not in Israel and is being held against his will. The family doesn't need to search for him. We believe that Syria is the correct address. And we call upon the public to join us in moving the state to act."
On June 4, an official statement marking Guy's 25th birthday was put in the US Congressional Record by Rep. Anthony D. Weiner. "The time has come to strike a blow against the hostage industry that Syria and its terrorist proxies have utilized so effectively against Israel and the West over the past 20 years... We cannot be complacent. If Elhanan Tannenbaum can be abducted from Europe, so can American citizens. If Guy Hever can disappear off the face of the earth without a trace, so can Americans traveling in the Middle East. Unless we act more forcefully, Zachary Baumel will not be the last American hostage to be held in Lebanon or Syria."
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