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Copyright 1994 Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem Post

April 22, 1994


BYLINE: Steve Rodan

After nearly 12 years of waiting, searching and lobbying, three families of MiAs are learning how to protest.

Elli Kagan remembers Day One. She arrived outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Sunday to find Yona and Miriam Baumel starting their hunger strike without water, without signs - just an elderly American couple on the edge of despair over their missing soldier son.

Kagan and her friend, Simcha Mirvis, brought water, recruited yeshiva students and spent all night drawing posters. The following day the vigil began with teenagers lined across the street holding signs and urging motorists to honk their horns.

"People are concerned about this because as foreigners who want to make aliya we want to have trust in our government," said Kagan, a student activist from the US.

After nearly 12 years of waiting, searching and lobbying, the Baumels and two other families are learning how to protest.

They are angry at what they say is the government's ineptitude in the search for their sons, who were captured at the battle of Sultan Yacoub in the Lebanon war and then never heard from again.

Moreover, the families are furious that the government now plans to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners without demanding that Israel learn of the fate of the MiAs. Once the prisoners are released, the families say, the government will have given away its last bargaining card.

"We have come to the end of our tether," Miriam Baumel said. "We're tired of being orphans."

The effort focuses on four soldiers still declared alive by the government. Zecharia Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were all captured in the battle of Sultan Yacoub. Ron Arad, an Air Force navigator, bailed out of his Phantom jet and was captured in 1986.

The remaining two MiAs, Rahamim Alsheikh and Yosef Fink, were declared dead after the government received evidence by Hizbullah through the United Nations in 1992.

The Baumels insist the government actually regards all the MiAs except Arad as being dead. Miriam Baumel said she has seen this purported policy in the way the IDF and government respond to the families of the soldiers missing at Sultan Yacoub.

One example was just before Pessah. The families organized a symbolic seder for the missing soldiers. Miriam Baumel says nobody from the Defense Ministry or Foreign Ministry attended. This, she said, despite the arrival of government representatives at ceremonies held only for Arad.

"We have proof that the military differentiates between us [Sultan Yacoub MiAs] and Arad," she said.

Officials dispute her claim. "The security establishment and the State of Israel don't differentiate between the families of the missing," Defense Ministry spokesman Oded Ben-Ami said. "They are doing all they can to represent them."

Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur told the Knesset on Wednesday that the subject of soldiers missing in Lebanon is raised at least weekly by Rabin himself. "We haven't wasted one opportunity," he said.

Privately, however, security sources and parliamentarians familiar with the issue have concluded that Baumel, Feldman and Katz are long dead. "Twelve years and not a word from them or anybody who can prove to have seen them," said a security source, who did not want to be identified. "I understand the pain of the families. But there's also a reality."

The Baumels insist the answer to their son's fate lies in the hands of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. It was Arafat who last year handed over half the IDF dog tag worn by Zecharia.

The Baumels want Arafat to answer several questions: Where did he get the dog tag from? Why did he deny he had it for so many years? What else does he know about Zecharia and the other MiAs?

The Baumels said the dog tag has been lying in the safe of Arafat's long-time deputy, Khalid Wazir, or Abu Jihad, for 10 years. Several years ago, Wazir's widow, Umm Jihad, pledged to release the dog tag.

Parliamentary supporters of the families of the Sultan Yacoub soldiers have other questions. Earlier this month, Wazir's daughter, Hanan A-Dik, was allowed to enter the territories as part of a deal in which 49 Palestinians returned to their homes.

"Why is Israel not questioning her?" Likud MK Limor Livnat asked.

The government has been embarrassed by the hunger strike. On the first day, Rabin invited the families to his office and heard their demand that no Palestinian prisoner be released until the fate of their sons is resolved. Rabin said he would consider the request.

In Tel Aviv, senior IDF commanders, including the head of the manpower division, called the parents of Feldman for a meeting as they demonstrated outside the Defense Ministry.

The family said the army asked them to end the vigil.

The parents have said no. On Wednesday, Yona Baumel, 66 and in poor health, felt faint from extreme heat and was taken to the Knesset, where he was given an infusion by the physician on call. He was ordered to end his fast.

Miriam Baumel and the other families said they would continue their hunger strike.

The Baumels' vigil is a lively affair. About two dozen youngsters line the sidewalk outside the Prime Minister's office holding signs, one of which reads, "Don't leave soldiers on the battlefield." Many of them hold signs urging motorists to honk.

The motorists, particularly bus and taxi drivers, often do and the result is an ongoing cacophony that appears to disturb government officials and their aides.

Occasionally, some of them open the window to see who is making the racket or shake their heads.

At times, Miriam Baumel, behaving like a peeved grandmother, tells the demonstrators to pipe down.

But the students seem to be enjoying themselves. Like Kagan, most of them are Americans and eager to draw attention to the cause of the MiAs.

"We're going to raise hell," Kagan said. "We're ready to sit in the streets. There is no excuse for all this waiting. Twelve years is 12 years too long."

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