Copyright 2004 Jerusalem Post
HEADLINE: 'Zack is still alive'
BYLINE: STUART H. DITCHEK
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.
As The Jerusalem Post summarized in February 2004: "After an entire night of intense fighting, the regiment commander ordered his tanks to make a run for it back to Israeli lines."
One tank was hit by a shell. The turret became snagged in a tree. The crew tumbled out and took cover in an orange grove.
What happened next to Zecharia (Zachary) Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman - in what's come to be known as the Sultan Yakub affair - remains in dispute.
I am Zecharia Baumel's childhood friend. I have met with the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, regarding the fate of the Sultan Yakub MIAs.
In September 2003, Zecharia's father, Yona, and I were granted visas to visit Damascus in order to discuss the fate of Zecharia and the other Sultan Yakub boys.
I presented the Syrian government and the US State Department with confidential information that Zecharia was alive and being held incommunicado in Syria. Obviously, the specifics of that information must remain secret as it came from sources that would be highly at risk should they be revealed. Yona presented the same information to the IDF.
Two weeks later the Syrian ambassador delivered a letter to President Bashar Assad from me regarding this information.
Later Assad agreed to meet with a group of Sephardi Jews from Brooklyn, New York. Under political pressure, I believe my own name was removed from the list of invitees two weeks prior to that meeting on May 11, 2004. But I was told by the leader of the group that they would advocate for the boys.
To the best of my knowledge they did not. The Baumels waited with me in New York after the group's return for a promised follow-up meeting with them. It never materialized. Our calls were not returned.
Recently the IDF has leaked reports that it is going to declare the boys dead. These leaks are based on findings during a Beit Din process attempting to resolve the evidence at hand. The Baumels have been allowed to view certain parts of the report and have concluded that it is poorly grounded as it makes many assumptions without credible evidence to back them up.
For example, most people are aware of the famous photograph of an Israeli tank being paraded through the streets of Damascus on June 11, 1982.
A reporter named Dean Brelis was present that day in the Semiramis Hotel. He went to the roof of the hotel after being summoned by others who said that an Israeli tank and its crew were being brought down the street. He was able to identify these boys as Israeli soldiers without hesitation.
In later years he was interviewed in the US by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad as part of an IDF investigation. Gilad concluded that Brelis's testimony was not credible.
There would be no further discussion by the IDF of this last documented sighting of all three soldiers together with their tank.
I interviewed Brelis several days ago. Although he is now elderly and ailing, his memory of the event remains graphic. He is as sure today as he was 22 years ago that that crew was Israeli.
THE PROBLEM that the IDF is faced with is that if Brelis's testimony is true, the circumstantial case claiming that the boys were killed at the battle scene is built on a house of cards. If they were seen alive in Damascus later that day, how could they have been killed in Sultan Yakub several hours earlier?
Most parents assume that when their 18-year-old children are sent to the army the IDF will do the right thing to protect them before and after battle. Before, maybe. After, maybe not.
In the Sultan Yakub case the Syrians lied, the IDF, I believe, covered up and the families were left without a future.
Last but not least comes the American government. In 1998 the United States Congress passed the Zachary Baumel Law stating that no agreements can go forward with the Palestinians or the Syrians without full disclosure of the fate of the Sultan Yakub boys. But President Bill Clinton agreed to sign the bill into law with the stipulation that it could be implemented only at the president's discretion.
This is exactly what happened at Camp David. Prime Minister Ehud Barak could have insisted that Clinton abide by the law and tell Yasser Arafat: No negotiations until you tell us about the Baumel diskit (dog tag) given to Yitzhak Rabin's negotiating team. Clinton turned a blind eye, as did Barak.
At some point soon, should negotiations with the Palestinians or the Syrians resume, President George W. Bush will come to the same crossroads.
THE SAD conclusion we have reached is that the IDF is draining our energy and ability in our efforts with the Syrians. Taking their cue from the IDF, the Syrians' attitude has now become one of disinterest.
Meanwhile, OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Gil Regev has concluded that the three soldiers were killed in battle and he is resolved to close the case by the time he retires.
We will not accede to IDF and Syrian efforts to let these boys disappear from our consciences.
The writer, a physician, is clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and executive director, Committee for the Release of Zachary Baumel. firstname.lastname@example.org
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