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Copyright 2002 Jerusalem Post
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

Time Line
Time line - The following are key events in the chronology of the MIAs from Sultan Ya'akoub:
June 11, 1982: Battle of Sultan Ya'akoub. St.-Sgt. Zvi Feldman, Sgt. Zachary Baumel, and Cpl. Yehuda Katz are reported missing in action.
June 12, 1982: Two members of Baumel's and Feldman's tank crew - Hezi Shai and Arye Lieberman - are captured. Shai is held by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command and Lieberman by the Syrians.
June 12, 1982: Time magazine, Associated Press, and La Stampa, plus Syrian media and Western diplomats, report that three Israeli prisoners were on display in a victory march in Damascus.
CBS television broadcasts the "parade" of a captured Israeli tank crew through the village of Ayta, near Damascus.
July 4, 1982: Palestinian military personnel and members of the Syrian secret police deliver four bodies to the Jewish cemetery in Damascus. The Syrians claim they are the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers.
August 15, 1982: Syria confirms holding Lieberman.
1983: John Mroz, head of the East-West Security Council, learns from Palestinian sources that Baumel is alive.
The widow of French statesman Pierre Mendes-France tells the Katz and Feldman families that the Quai D'Orsay has information that the men are alive.
On September 17, the Red Cross exhumes the four bodies in the Damascus Jewish cemetery. Only one is an MIA - Zohar Lipschitz, who was in the same tank as Katz.
1984: Arye Lieberman is freed and returned to Israel.
Rifat Assad, brother of Syrian president Hafez Assad, is quoted in a Lebanese newspaper saying that there are live Israeli prisoners of war.
Ex-Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass tells German Foreign Minister Franz Joseph Strauss that three Israeli prisoners are being held by Ahmed Jibril.
Princess Dina of Jordan presents Israeli journalist Aharon Barnea with a newly made wax impression of Baumel's complete dog tag.
1985: Hezi Shai is freed and returned home.
The Baumels, together with attorney Ori Slonim (a special adviser to the defense minister, responsible for the MIA issue), locate a drug dealer in Denmark who served time in Syria's Tadmor Prison and claims he saw Israeli prisoners there after the Lebanon War.
Jordanian TV's Hebrew-language news anchor, Haroun Machamid, announces on television that Baumel is alive and being held by the Palestinians. In 1995, he claims he saw Baumel in captivity in 1983.
1987: Ivan Tosevski, Yugoslavian ambassador to Finland and head of the UN Working Committee on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, reports to Israel's ambassador to Finland, Mordechai Lador, that he knows Baumel was alive.
A Syrian working for Israeli intelligence reports seeing Baumel alive. The source was later executed by the Syrians.
1988: Amnesty International reports it had received information that three Israeli soldiers who disappeared in 1982 are alive and in Syrian custody.
East German intelligence sources report that Baumel is alive.
1990-91: Episcopal clergyman Samir Habiby reports that Israelis are being held alive in Syria. An Eastern Orthodox clergyman reports that Baumel and Feldman were moved from Damascus to the Beirut area.
Jibril tells CNN that "three Israeli soldiers are alive."
1993: A Russian Near East expert reports that two Israeli soldiers are alive and being held in southern Lebanon.
Yasser Arafat delivers half of Baumel's dog tag to Jacques Nerieh, adviser to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, promising more information.
Nothing further is ever heard about this from Arafat.
1994: Jacques Chirac is quoted in Ma'ariv: "I spoke to my friend, the prime minister of Lebanon, and he told me in no uncertain terms that only Assad knows what has happened to the Israeli POWs."
1995: Ibrahim Suliman, a Syrian American close to Hafez Assad, reports that there is information in Damascus that Baumel is alive.
1997: Palestinian Gen. Abdul al-Chai tells Arab MKs visiting Syria that his forces captured live Israeli soldiers at Sultan Ya'akoub.
1998: A Palestinian prisoner freed from a Syrian jail reports hearing that live Israeli soldiers had been captured at Sultan Ya'akoub and were being transferred from one militia group to another.
2000: Ibrahim Suliman once again states that Baumel is alive.
2001: IDF religious court fails to find sufficient evidence to declare Baumel dead.

around the family table with heartache and longing.

To the outsider, it is incomprehensible how these families have managed to go on. Their path has been filled with missed opportunities and numerous differences with the government and military establishment. These differences have caused them to embark on their own efforts to find their sons. They have logged thousands of kilometers, interviewed hundreds of witnesses and informants, and collected information from sources around the world. They have also lobbied Israeli, American, and European public figures. Eventually, in 1994, the need to do something more led to the establishment of a non-profit society, the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers (ICMIS.)

"Yona Baumel may look like a congenial granddad, but this man has connections to former KGB intelligence agents and all kinds of shady and shadowy sources in the Arab world," says Brigitte Silverberg, administrative director of the coalition. "Unfortunately, the reality of the situation has forced each family to try to get information on its own."

"For a long time now, there has been a breakdown of confidence on our part in the powers that be," says Baumel, 75, a former Jerusalem sales manager for Anglo-Saxon, currently a real estate adviser. "There were even cases where we recruited influential people to help us, and then the army or the Foreign Ministry would go behind our backs and tell these people that Zack was dead."

In trying to get the government's side of the story, The Jerusalem Post encountered some of the frustrations that the families have had to endure. Initially, the IDF Spokesman's Office said that it was the responsibility of the Defense Ministry to comment. The defense minister's adviser for communications insisted it was the IDF Spokesman's Office that should respond. Finally, an IDF source said: "The IDF and the Defense Ministry throughout the years have continued and are continuing to make efforts to locate and get information on the whereabouts of the missing soldiers. This matter remains a priority of the State of Israel and the defense establishment. Every effort will be made until all cases are satisfactorily resolved."

As American citizens, the Baumels have been able to go where the other families could not. "We have been in fairly good contact with Arab sources," says Yona Baumel. "We receive a continuous supply of information. Three years ago, Hafez Assad told [then US secretary of state] Madeline Albright that he knew about Zack, but the time was not right. Our latest information to this effect is from May 2001. I firmly believe that Zack is alive and being held in Syrian-controlled territory. Our source tells us that there is one other Israeli soldier with him."

Some question whether it is realistic to hold out hope after 20 years. "People ask me what do the Syrians or any other Arab group have to gain by holding Zack incommunicado for 20 years," Baumel says. "The US State Department theory is that until the peace process gets off the ground, he is a bargaining chip. Also, Syria has held Jordanians and Palestinians in its jails for 25 years without acknowledging so. When King Hussein died and Assad came to Jordan for the funeral, he freed Jordanians held incommunicado in Syrian prisons for 25 years. I have interviewed Palestinians held in Syrian jails. So, in the context of Middle East hostage taking, there still is hope."

"The information that we have is that some, if not all of the MIAs are alive," states Danny Eisen, ICMIS chairman. "This information is very disturbing and not only would not allow a parent to sleep at night but also anyone with a conscience."

The Baumels are aware that some sources may be playing them. "We do take this into consideration, but we have information from such a variety of sources that some of it must be true," Yona responds. "I work on the principle that if information from different sources reinforce one another, then this information is worth more."

Nevertheless, he recalls an incident about 10 or 12 years ago, when he was waiting at London's Heathrow Airport with a retired Mossad agent for a possible source to arrive from Damascus. "The Mossad agent told me that he once had an agent who was providing very interesting information. Suddenly, the Shin Bet also had an agent providing similar information and everyone's ears perked up. But the two agents were ultimately found to be the same person working the Mossad and the Shin Bet under two different names. So, if professionals can be fooled, so can I."

Also, because of their American citizenship (and Zack's), the Baumels have been able to garner American support for Israeli MIAs. In 1999, president Bill Clinton signed Public Law 106-89 "A Bill to Locate and Secure the Return of Zachary Baumel and Other Israeli Soldiers Missing in Action." The law stipulates that the State Department raise the issue on "an urgent basis" with the relevant Arab governments. The bill also conditions American aid to Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and other governments to their willingness to "assist in locating and securing the return of the soldiers." Unfortunately, to date, the law has not been applied.

For years, the families put their trust in the State of Israel and the military authorities. They were always told that as soon as there was someone to speak to, the MIAs would be a priority issue. With the coming of the Oslo peace process, the families saw their golden opportunity. In 1993, they started the ICMIS as an ad hoc effort to push the MIA issue.

However, it soon became apparent that thousands of Palestinian prisoners were being released and the MIA families had received no information in exchange and no negotiations were taking place.

The coalition works to keep alive the quest for the three MIAs from Sultan Ya'akoub, Ron Arad (even though the Arad family has formed its own organization), Guy Hever (who disappeared from his army base on the Golan Heights in 1997), and civilian Elhanan Tannenbaum, (who is being held by Hizbullah in Lebanon.)

Frustration with the Oslo process increased as the families were told by government figures that Israel was not willing to jeopardize the peace process for a few missing soldiers. In February 2000, on the cusp of his negotiations with Syria, prime minister Ehud Barak torpedoed a bill in the Knesset that would have forced the government to obtain information on MIAs as a condition for Knesset approval of any peace accord with the Syrians or the Palestinians. Yona Baumel termed Barak's action "a stinking maneuver."

"If any issue could have been a confidence builder for the peace process, it was the MIAs," claims Eisen. "But while Israel turned over prisoners and land to the Palestinians, all we got in return was half a dog tag. The lack of reciprocity just screams out. The families deserve to be released from the captivity of doubt. They live in a twilight zone with no parameters and no end in sight. A missing child casts a very long shadow. All normal emotions are stretched out of shape. They can't continue living normally, but on the other hand, they must."

He stresses that the MIAs were sent by the Israeli government on a mission on behalf of the nation. "The MIAs raise some very serious questions concerning our values. How far are we willing to go to save a life? What is the nature of accountability of governments and armies with respect to soldiers?"

Time has taken its toll on some of the families. The elderly Feldmans and the Katzes have more or less come to the end of the line in their struggle with worldly powers.

"I am filled with faith," says Yossi Katz, father of Yehuda. "Faith can overcome all rational obstacles. My son is in the hands of heaven. That we have not fallen apart over these 20 years is a sign that we have something worth waiting for. All the time that there is no proof that Yehuda is dead, we have hope. Twenty years is a long time in the span of a human life, but in the span of spiritual victory, it is only a second. I am reminded of the passage in Zacharia 4:6: 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.'"

"I used to go abroad trying to find leads," recalls Pnina Feldman, mother of Zvi. "But why should I have done that? The government should have done it. The reality today is such that no one is focusing on our son.

"My husband is no longer well, and I have to take care of him. He only asks if he will live long enough to see Zvi again. The pain is so great. I don't wish this on any other family. Every year, on Remembrance Day, I ask myself what I should do. Should I light a candle? I don't know. We don't even have this day. I am in the middle of a meal, and I think: 'What does Zvi have to eat? How is he being treated?' It is so hard. We don't know whom to turn to anymore.

"Only the Holy One, blessed be He, can save us. When Zvi had been missing about two years I had a dream in which I saw Rachel, the Matriarch. I asked her to pray for Zvi. I said to her: 'My fate is like yours - to weep for my missing child.' I even went to Rachel's Tomb to light a candle and pray. Nevertheless, I still have hope of seeing Zvi again."

The Baumels are continuing their efforts. Just last year, the family put pressure on the IDF to set up a religious court to see if their son could be declared dead. The aim was to force a reevaluation of the case and stir the army out of complacency.

"We wanted to show that he cannot be declared dead," says Yona Baumel. "For years, the army told us that Zack had been killed in battle, but we said no way. We have information that he is still alive. We have an eyewitness who saw him in captivity 15 years ago. The beit din [religious court] reviewed all the evidence and could not prove that Zack is dead."

Just last week, the army decided to appoint an entirely new team to review the case of Ron Arad.

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
Last week, nearly 16 years after the capture of air force navigator Ron Arad in southern Lebanon, the IDF decided to set up a new team, headed by retired judge Eliahu Winograd, to re-examine all evidence and reach conclusions regarding his fate. And, for the first time, it will be offering a reward of $10 million, financed by the state, to anyone providing information leading to Arad.
Arad's Phantom was shot down over southern Lebanon on October 16, 1986. The pilot bailed out and was rescued by the IDF. Arad was taken captive by Amal, a Shi'ite militia with ties to Iran. In 1987, Arad's family received a photograph of Arad and letters he wrote from captivity.
After a period of being held in Lebanon, his whereabouts are no longer known. Israel has claimed for years that Iran is responsible for Arad.
The decision to set up the new team was made in coordination with the Arad family.

"The idea of coping is not what you say with a long-term view," notes Miriam Baumel. "You do it day by day. And you get a spastic colon. That is my coping. I will say that it was much harder in the beginning. I couldn't concentrate at all. I have learned to keep to a routine, to get engrossed in other things. But the nights are really hard. You cannot control your thoughts, feelings and dreams when you lay in bed at night. Zack is our flesh and blood. We cannot abandon him. I constantly ask people: 'What would you do if it were your son?'"

The Baumels are very grateful for the support the Israeli public has shown over the years. "I may have bitter recriminations against those in government, but I have only heaps of praise for the public for the moral support it has given us," says Yona. "If I had saved all the pictures children sent us, I would have needed another apartment. You have no idea how much these drawings and support mean to us."

What do the families think should be done today?

Yossi Katz would like people to pray for Yehuda. He asks that women lighting Shabbat candles include a prayer for the return of his son and the others. "Through prayer, I believe he will return."

The Baumels would like the public to make it very clear that the MIA issue is not something to be left to the end of negotiations with the Arabs. "The MIAs have to be part and parcel of every discussion we have with the Arab world," he stresses.

"Israel must raise the issue of MIAs with every US or European diplomat or official and insist that they press the Syrians and/or Arafat for information," Miriam says. "Yasser Arafat knows who had Zack's dog tag. He knows which group held Zack. He has the information and he doesn't give it to us. In addition, every Israeli official who goes abroad should raise the issue out loud and not just privately."

And they would like the public to express its support for a bill now before the Knesset that would tie the signing of peace treaties with the Arab world to cooperation on MIAs.

Eisen reminds the public that "the issue is not just Zack or Zvi or Yehuda or Guy or Ron but also the next kid who goes missing. This is where it begins, but where does it end? No war is over until everyone comes home. The issue needs resolution, both for the families and the country. I remember one day, a young man came into our office with gelled hair and piercing. He just stood there looking around and I asked him if I could help him. He replied: 'No, I am about to be drafted, and I just wanted to see who will come looking for me if I go missing.' "

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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