Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: IDF to declare Sultan Yakoub soldiers dead
BYLINE: MATTHEW GUTMAN
The IDF is within days of declaring Sgts. Zacharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Tzvi Feldman, captured in a 1982 tank battle with Syria at Sultan Yakoub, as "killed in action and their place of burial unknown," according to media reports.
The official declaration, which requires the approval of OC Chaplaincy Corps Brig.-Gen. Yisrael Weiss, would end 22 years of tortuous uncertainty for the families of the missing soldiers.
The move comes as Israel and Hizbullah are locked in the midst of the second phase of German-mediated negotiations, aimed at shedding light on the fate of missing IAF navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad and four Iranian diplomats who went missing in 1982.
The families of the missing soldiers have pressured the IDF and the government to end the ordeal by obtaining the intelligence that would prove their sons either dead or alive.
Last October, OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Gil Regev called the families of the missing soldiers, telling them that while he has no concrete information that they are dead, the IDF was about to rule that they were "killed in action, and their place of burial unknown." But in November, the Katz family petitioned the High Court of Justice against the IDF making hasty declarations.
Regev had visited the Katzes, indicating that their son was no longer alive, but did not meet with the other families. He based his conversation with the Katzes on a report by a committee tasked with painstakingly reenacting the bloody Sultan Yakoub battle in which the three soldiers were captured. The report apparently resolved that the three had died, Channel 1 reported last October. It is believed that the bodies of the three are in Syria.
The High Court issued an order on Sunday prohibiting the publication of many of the report's details.
The issue passed quietly, but the families insist that information about their sons continues to circulate. In 1993, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat presented then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin one half of Baumel's dog tag.
Other information has wound its way to the families, particularly to the Baumels, who have waged a ceaseless campaign to glean information on their son. Longtime observers believe that Baumel's case is different because he is also an American citizen.
The families were angered by the revelation, not shared with them beforehand, that the IDF is soon to issue a declaration on the fate of the three soldiers.
"That is absurd, to leak this through the press and not through the families," said Zacharia Baumel's father Yona. "We've gone through enough in the past 20 years that we are entitled to a little consideration."
The Baumels are in their 70s, and the Katzes and Feldmans are in their 80s. Baumel has dedicated much of the last 22 years to securing information on his son, in the process developing a wide array of contacts in the Middle East.
Baumel said that he has relatively reliable information that his son, and perhaps another member of the tank crew, remains alive. Furthermore, he claims, the army's information regarding the soldiers is tendentious at best.
The three soldiers served in the Armored Corps during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, dubbed Operation Peace for the Galilee. In the fierce tank battle with Syrian forces on the Lebanese-Syrian border in June 1982, the three soldiers and another, Hezi Shai, were captured after their tanks were disabled. Shai was released in the so-called "Jibril deal" exchange with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1985. No word came about the fate of Baumel, Katz, and Feldman, though a tank damaged in the battle was paraded triumphantly through the streets of Damascus the next day.
Katz commanded one of the two tanks that disappeared during the battle, while Feldman and Baumel were crewmen in another tank. Twenty Israeli soldiers died in the battle.
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