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Copyright 2004 Arutz 7
February 2

HEADLINE: Bottom Line: Baumel is Very Cautiously Optimistic

Israel's preoccupation with missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad raises the question of why the three MIA's from the Battle of Sultan Yaaqub in the 1982 Peace for Galilee War in Lebanon are being ignored.

Israel's preoccupation with missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad raises the question of the three MIA's from the Battle of Sultan Yaaqub in the 1982 Peace for Galilee War in Lebanon. Although IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon said last week that "we are not forgetting the three missing Sultan Yaaqub soldiers - Zechariah Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz", the question remains: "Why is so much more attention being paid to Ron Arad than to the other three?"

Yona Baumel, Zechariah's father, told Arutz-7 last week, "Hizbullah [Israel's partner in the current deal] wasn't around in 1982, and also the latest information, at least regarding Zechariah, is that he's being held in Syria. We have long felt that our case is second-class or even third-class; it's no secret that there's a double standard when it comes to the IAF compared to the armored corps. I recently had it out with the armored corps about this... Despite their nice words in the past - they said that they are relating to the boys as if they're alive as long as it's not been proven otherwise - in general they haven't been working too hard. The government just doesn't know how to wage negotiations of this sort. I, in 1989, negotiated myself for the return of an Israeli corpse - it was myself against a whole PLO delegation - in return for only one Arab terrorist."

In a follow-up interview today, Mr. Baumel told Arutz-7's correspondent:

"The army would like to declare them as soldiers whose burial place is unknown; they have never had a situation of missing-in-action for as long as this [over 21.5 years]. But we have information on the Syrians keeping prisoners incommunicado for a very long period - not only Israelis, even Arabs. How much can we [the families] depend on the official Israeli authorities? We [as American citizens] can get into places that the government can't get into. We are making progress, though I won't go into details. We have some information on live prisoners being held in Syria. I've been saying for years that the chances are greater that the Sultan Yaaqub prisoners are alive than any other Israeli prisoners."

Coincidentally, Arabicnews.com reported two days ago that Syria has been releasing scores of detainees from its prisons in recent days. The reports say that 30 such detainees, some of whom had been held for more than 20 years, were released on Friday, and that another 90 are scheduled to be released. Most of those to be released are from Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Tahrir, and some are Iraqi Ba'athists and a group of pilot officers accused of a coup attempt in the early 1980's.

Asked to explain how he negotiated the one-for-one deal in 1989, Mr. Baumel said:

"I was a guest of the PLO in Tunis, because the brother of a [PLO] Force-17 commander who was missing came to me for help. How this happened is an interesting story in itself. There was a Force-17 ship named Ativarius that was sent to overrun the Kiryah [the government complex in the sea-side city of Tel Aviv] and take hostages. The commander of the ship, Abdel Nasser Hamed, was originally from eastern Jerusalem, and he had a brother who was a young lawyer from eastern Jerusalem by the name of Isa Hamed. Israel sunk the ship off of Alexandria, Egypt. Some of the crew were killed, others were captured, and some bodies were later recovered by both the Israelis and Egyptians.

"Isa was convinced, and I think he might still be convinced, that Israel had captured his brother. I took him to visit, in prison, his brother's best friend who was on the ship with him; he described how Isa's brother, the captain, jumped off the ship last; when they called his name, he answered, but when they called him a second time, he already didn't answer...

"At one point, in 1989, Isa was going to take me to meet with a PLO delegation in Tunis. Interestingly enough, in the end, it was I who brought him - because his Tunisian visa didn't come through, and when I met him in Rome for our flight to Tunis together, the airline in Rome didn't want to let him fly to Tunis. So I spoke to the station manager, and said that I would be responsible for his flight back if necessary - and so they let him go...

"I met in Tunis with Yasser Abed Rabbo, who was first a member of Hawatme's group, but then later joined Arafat's PLO. Hawatme's group was holding the body of Israeli-Druze soldier Samir Assad. They brought over Mandul Nofah, the man who planned the Maalot massacre of 1974 and who was in charge of Assad's body. They wanted to make a deal: Assad in exchange for Omar al-Kassem, who was the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israeli prison. Al-Kassem was captured when organizing a Jordanian infiltration into Israel, and was supposed to have been released in the Jibril deal of 1985 - but Jibril knew that Al-Kassem had once planned to kill Jibril, so Jibril took him off the list. Now, he was dying of cancer, so we made the deal of Kassem for Assad - but this time Hawatme vetoed it, and Kassem - who was a strong man; we got to know each other - died right afterwards. In the end, a year or two later, Israel gave up another terrorist, and the one-for-one deal went through."

Baumel said that throughout the negotiations, he tried to find more information about his son - "but the relationships there are so complex. They said they knew nothing." As far as Mr. Baumel knows, his son was captured by a small group that was originally loyal to Arafat and then defected to Syria. He doesn't want to elaborate, but he is not pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough relatively soon in finding out his son Zack's whereabouts.

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