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Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
February 16

HEADLINE: Families of missing soldiers angry at IDF


Families of the three missing soldiers Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman, who were captured in a 1982 tank battle with Syria at Sultan Yakoub, were angered by reports concerning the IDF's intentions to announce the three "killed in action and their place of burial unknown," not only because of the army's failure to update them on the decision, but also because they feel that not enough proof has been collected to substantiate the decision.

"At this point the army's stand is irrelevant, and we are waiting to see if they can offer substantial proof to back such a decision. I believe that we are close to a breakthrough... things are developing in Damascus and we feel that the answer on the fate of the boys lies there," Yona Baumel told The Jerusalem Post.

"According to reports I have received Zac is still alive," he said.

Baumel revealed that Dr. Stewart Ditchek, a pediatrics professor from New York and a childhood friend of his son Zachary, has assisted greatly in securing information from the authorities in Syria. "We made aliya when Zac was nine and a half. The two were very close and studied at the Etz Chaim yeshiva school in Boro Park. We lost contact with him until some years ago. He was friends with one of our neighbors and through them asked to meet with us. Of course we agreed and he began using his medical contacts to bring information on Zac," Baumel said.

Asked why he feels that a breakthrough is imminent, Baumel said "the difference now is that the information is coming from a much more official Syrian source." People don't realize, said Baumel, that there is a change in the area. The Syrians, he said, are known to hold people incommunicado for years, and unless they have a reason to release them can hold them for decades.

"Were it anyone else we would worry even more. People don't realize that for the Syrians such behavior is par for the course."

Last October, an Israeli with dual nationality was to have traveled to Damascus to meet with officials and glean information regarding the fate of the three soldiers. Senior Israeli officials, as well as US officials, approved the trip. With air tickets in hand, the dual national, who was to be accompanied by at least one other person, was on the verge of setting out for Syria when the air force raided the Ein Saheb terrorist training camp near the Damascus and the visit was postponed.

Relating to the recent media reports, Baumel said the army informed them that a gag order had been imposed on recent developments but that officials failed to divulge any information.

Baumel criticized the IDF decision declaring that the army had violated an agreement they had with the families whereby they would inform them of any such decisions and allow them to review the committee findings that investigated the details surrounding the soldiers' disappearance and the battle scene in which more than 20 lost their lives.

"I do not intend to lodge an appeal with the courts in order to view the information. I feel that a soldier was sent into battle and I think that the authorities should fully cooperate with the parents," he said. "I refuse to divulge any information I have gleaned to the army. In the past I used to tell them everything and they used my sources in attempts to secure the release of others and not the soldiers missing from the Sultan Yakoub battle," he said.

On Monday in an interview with Army Radio, Aryeh Lieberman, who served in the same crew with Baumel and Feldman, said he doesn't think the two are still alive. Baumel, however, said he has an earlier recorded interview which Lieberman gave claiming that when he left the scene his son Zachary was still alive.

A panel headed by OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Gil Regev and other military officials who examined the findings recently concluded that the three soldiers were killed in battle and that there was no evidence supporting that they were still alive. The findings were handed over to the OC Chaplaincy Corps Brig.-Gen. Yisrael Weiss for review. Last October, Regev informed the families that while he had no concrete evidence he believed the men were no longer alive.

For almost 22 years the Baumels have left no stone unturned in an effort to seek out information regarding the fate of their son and his two comrades. "We feel right now that unfortunately the entire affair has become caught up in geopolitics - we are talking about young kids who were sent to war," Baumel said. Zvi's mother, Pnina Feldman, echoed similar sentiments on Monday and accused the authorities of neglecting the issue concerning the three MIAs and insisted that the answers lies with Syria.

She added that no one from the army had been in contact with the family and updated them on the situation or explained why the army intended to reclassify them as killed in action, their burial place unknown.

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