The Jewish Week
July 4, 1997
HEADLINE: Syria Must End Silence On MIAs
BYLINE: Begun, Martin
We marked recently the 15th anniversary of a small battle in Lebanon - one for three Israeli soldiers and their families that has never ended.
In the first days of Operation Peace for the Galilee, Israel's extended effort to stabilize southern Lebanon, 11 Israeli tanks were ambushed near Sultan Yakoub. Of those killed or captured on that day, the only ones whose whereabouts remain uncertain are Sgt. Zvi Feldman, Cpl. Yehuda Katz and Sgt. Zachary Baumel, a New York native. Their fates have been sidetracked by political calculation and deceit. As the climate for peace ripens this issue - and that of Israeli airman Ron Arad, captured in 1986 - must occupy a humanitarian and political presence.
Both Syrian and Palestinian leadership have persisted in a double game of denying all knowledge and then later producing inconclusive information.
Following the 1984 release of a Sultan Yakoub MIA, whom Damascus authorities claimed they did not hold until he matrialized in a prisoner exchange, Syria's defense minister told a German representative there were additional Israelis being held. After professing ignorance of them for years, Palestinina leader Yasir Arafat presented half of Baumel's identification dog tags to Israeli officials in 1994.
Unlike typical MIAs, whose probable death cannot be confirmed, these three are presumed to have survived the fighting and were put on public display. An Israeli tank with three Israeli crewmen was paraded through Damascus one day after the battle, on June 12, 1982. Denials from Damascus pale beside reports from Time magazine, the Associated Press and Syrian television, which recorded the scene. According to an Italian newspaper, the tank and its crew reached the headquarters of President Assad's brother.
The Third Geneva Convention requires belligerents to notify the Red Cross and the next of kin immediately upon the capture of prisoners of war, or upon their death. Significantly, Article 13 mandates the prisoners' protection "against insults and public curiosite." In flouting this provision with the Damascus parade, Syria publicly revealed that all three were captured alive, and implicated itself in the violation of their prominent provisions. Its ancient history as a cradle of civilization obligates rather than absolves Syria from the assumptions of modern warfare and the responsibilities of mature statecraft.
In analyzing the victory of an apparent moderate in Iran's recent elections, observers now await corresponding policy shifts in compliance with international norms. Is it farfetched to expect that Syria, a member of the Desert Storm alliance, will do no less?
If Syria hopes to attain acceptance by the West, it would behoove President Assad to stop his transparent efforts to manipulate the peace process to his own advantage. Rather, Assad, along with Arafat, should be advised that the prize of legitimacy is linked to the price of adherence to international humanitarian canon. Without adherence for the laws of conflict, there can be no expectation for sustained peace.
An expeditious resolution of the MIAs' plight will serve to ensure the viability of the reconciliation process in the Middle East. Indeed, it is imperative that the various efforts of the governments of the United States and Germany, as well as the United Nations and Red Cross not only be applauded, but redoubled and replicated in Western and Arab circles.
The captors of Feldman, Katz, Baumel and Arab should be held by the civilized world to the moral code and standard that defines Western civilization.
For the parents and loved ones of the Israeli MIAs, the tragic 15 years of silence and emptiness must be brought to an end.