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Copyright 1991 The Jerusalem Report
The Jerusalem Report

August 29, 1991

HEADLINE: The Baumels' Secret Search For Their Son

BYLINE: David Horovitz

A missing soldier's parents have met PLO leaders, Arab journalists and U.N. officials in their quest for news of his fate

At first glance, it seems an unlikely photograph for the Baumels to display so prominently, propped up on the shelf behind the television: a dozen euphoric Syrian soldiers, riding through Damascus aboard a captured Israeli tank.

But then Miriam Baumel points to a small patch of white, wedged in among the uniformed Syrians. She wants to believe that the white patch is the upper torso of her son Zack, missing since the battle of Sultan Yakoub in Eastern Lebanon on June 11, 1982, the sixth day of the Lebanon War. She recalls that he said he would try to wear something distinguishing if captured, and hazards that the white might be his tallit katan, the ritual garment that an Orthodox man wears beneath his clothes. She thinks she can see a pair of shorts on the lower body, and remembers that Zack always wore shorts under his army trousers.

But after nine years of raised expectations and dashed hopes, Miriam Baumel has taught herself that she has nothing to gain by deluding herself.

A strong, dark-haired woman, her Brooklyn accent unaffected by 20 years in Israel, she shrugs her shoulders and seems to gather herself together: "It might be him," she says finally, "but go prove it.

In fact, the Baumels, who immigrated from the United States in 1971, have been trying to prove it to establish whether their son is alive, and if so who's holding him from the day they were told Zack had gone missing in action. Less than satisfied with the Israeli defense authorities' efforts to gain information, Miriam and her husband Yona turned themselves into private investigators, well-versed in the complex interrelationships of the innumerable Palestinian terror groups, any of which might have information on their son.

The search has taken Yona to Tunis, with Israeli government approval, for meetings with PLO leaders; to Jordan, to interview the head of Jordan TV's Hebrew department; and to other Arab countries, for talks with other officials, whose identities Yona won't disclose for fear of harming Zack's cause.

It has left them remarkably unscathed: as they sit in the living room of their apartment in Jerusalem's Bayit Vagan neighborhood, they betray signs of neither cynicism nor bitterness. He spreads his tall frame across the sofa, she sinks back into her favorite armchair, and they tell a story of faith and optimism, of determination and hope, of much information gathered, but no hard evidence.

The last firm word on Zack Baumel's fate comes from Hezi Shai, his tank commander. "Our tank was hit, and started burning," Shai told the Baumels soon after his release by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in a 1985 prisoner exchange. "I got out... (Arik) Lieberman followed me." Then Zvi Feldman, another of the seven Israeli soldiers still missing, clambered out. "Two minutes later Baumel joined us.

The quartet took cover from Syrian fire for a while, then Shai and Lieberman moved off toward Israeli lines a kilometer south. Both were captured, and Lieberman was subsequently freed by the Syrians. Neither recalled seeing Katz or Baumel again.

That same night, Syrian television screened film of Syrian soldiers driving through Damascus on one of the six Israeli tanks lost in the battle.

The international media broadcast Syrian reports that the crew had been captured too. And it is from that film that the Baumels' cherished photograph was taken.

Within three weeks, however, the Syrian story changed. Talk of a captured crew ended abruptly. And on July 4, the Syrians staged a funeral at the Jewish cemetery in Damascus, at which they said four Israeli soldiers were buried. The four were named, and were found to be soldiers who had returned safely from the battle. "But the army came to the conclusion that the bodies in the caskets were our missing soldiers," says Yona Baumel, that the Syrians had simply got the names wrong. "Yehoshua Saguy, head of intelligence, told us 80 percent of the problem of the missing soldiers was in Damascus cemetery," says Miriam.

Disillusioned and upset by this dismissive attitude, the Baumels got to work themselves. "The American heritage is not to depend on the government," says Yona, with a wry smile. "If you want something done, you do it yourself.

With the support of then-senator Charles Percy of Illinois, they eventually secured the disinterment of the Damascus bodies in 1983, and it was found that three of the corpses were Arabs, and the fourth was that of Zohar Lipshitz, commander of another Israeli tank at Sultan Yakoub.

The relief was immeasurable. The search was under way in earnest. The Baumels made contact with the families of missing Western hostages, with Arab journalists, with U.N. officials, and slowly these began to pay dividends.

From one reporter they heard of the occasion in late August 1982 when a group of Western journalists was invited by Palestinian officials to visit a camp outside Damascus where three Israeli soldiers were being held hostage.

When they got to the camp, a Jibril base, the guards there confirmed that they were holding three Israelis, but refused to let the journalists in to see them.

From another reporter, Harun Mahamid, the head of Jordan TV's Hebrew-language service, they received much harder information. Yona traveled to Amman to see Mahamid five years ago, meeting him in the Intercontinental Hotel, with U.S. consular officials in attendance. Mahamid claimed he had seen Zack Baumel, alive and apparently well, in eastern Lebanon in the winter of 1982. "He wouldn't say who was holding Zack, and he said one or two other Israeli soldiers were being held with him," Yona remembers. "He told us that the captors had shown him Zack's identity papers, with his photograph, and then allowed him to see but not talk to Zack.

The official Israeli response was to deride this story, because the army identity card does not include a photograph. "They said Mahamid had made the whole thing up," says Miriam. "We had left Zack's bedroom untouched, and we knew that if we found his te'udat zehut (the civilian Israeli ID card, which does carry a photo), then the army was right. We turned the room upside down and we never found it. He must have taken it with him." Which means Mahamid may well have been telling the truth.

Other information has been less substantial. Yona says a genuine wax impression of Zack's army dog tag was sent to Israel by a Palestinian group which, in itself, is not proof that he is alive. Twice in January 1989, Yona traveled to Tunis and met with PLO leaders, but received no firm word about Zack. Instead, he was asked to mediate a deal, involving an exchange of Samir Asad, the Israeli Druse sergeant captured by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in April 1983 (and still missing), for Omar al-Kassem, a DFLP leader who staged an infiltration into Israel from Jordan and was one of the longest-held Israeli security prisoners. Yona visited al-Kassem, who was dying of cancer, several times in prison hospital, and "developed quite a rapport" with him. "He was a tremendous personality, and we respected each other." In June 1989, the deal was called off by the Palestinians. Kassem died the next day.

The experience left the Baumels deeply skeptical about the ability of the PLO to play any meaningful role in hostage negotiations. "They're completely impotent," says Yona. "Syria is the address.

Indeed, the Baumels believe that Zack, along with Feldman, was held in the Damascus area for much of the past nine years, but that he may have been moved to the Beirut area this year, prior to the recent flurry of hostage activity. They think he has been in the hands of a variety of pro-Syrian PLO factions, but sometimes, says Miriam, "we get the feeling that there's some kind of central `body bank' of Israelis; whichever terrorist group decides it wants to do a deal, just `withdraws' one from this reserve.

They search, and pray, and live, on the assumption that Zack is alive, because they've had no proof to the contrary. Yona stresses that they've checked out every report of his death with the same assiduousness as the news that he is alive. "They've had Zack killed three or four times. I'm pleased to say, all those negative reports reached dead ends. Believe me, we're realistic." If there was proof that Zack was dead, they wouldn't fool themselves. "Living like this, in this state of doubt, is no pleasure," says Yona grimly.

Every two or three minutes, throughout a two-hour interview, the phone rings, with the couple taking turns to answer it. Now it rings again, and Yona walks wearily off to the room where Zack used to sleep, now transformed into an office, equipped with shelves of files and a computer, from which the Baumels keep track of their search. A few minutes later, he comes back to the living room. "That was a contact in France, telling us he'd just got word from Lebanon that Zack is alive and is being held there.

He looks over at Miriam; they both shrug. "It's good to hear, but it doesn't mean anything," says Yona. Miriam rubs her palm across her forehead and sighs. "Prove it," she whispers. "Prove it."

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