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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
January 08

HEADLINE: A History of Sultan Yakoub Battle


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 Yakoub 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 Yakoub.

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 Zecharia Baumel (the driver), Zvi 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.

Yehuda 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 Yakoub families have never received conclusive proof that their sons were captured.

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.

As American citizens, the Baumels have been able to go where the other families could not. 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.)

Born in the US, Baumel 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.

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