mia2b.jpg (4487 bytes)

Copyright 1994 Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem Post

June 10, 1994


BYLINE: Steve Rodan and Hillel Kutler

It was a Tuesday afternoon in June 1982 when Yona and Miriam Baumel heard the doorbell ring at their Jerusalem apartment. The visitor was an IDF representative with news that their son Zachary was missing. It was during the early days of Operation Peace for Galilee - the Lebanon War - and dozens of soldiers were unaccounted for. The Baumels were told to be patient and wait for more information.

On a table was Zach's last postcard: "Everything is OK, it looks like I won't be home for a while ..." Last month, more than a decade and many defense assessments later, Miriam Baumel sat outside the Prime Minister's Office as yeshiva students held up signs reading "Hoot if you care about our boys missing in action." Most motorists did.

Twelve years after they learned their son was missing in action, the Baumels have come full circle. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the battle that changed their lives, that of Sultan Ya'akoub from which Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman never returned, neither dead nor alive. And after the Baumels and the other MiA families have traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometers, interviewed hundreds of people, collected thousands of pieces of information and fasted for days in a hunger strike, they have returned to the point from which they began: without an answer to the fate of their sons.

The missing pieces to that puzzle have never been provided by Israel. Despite appeals to world dignitaries, secret talks with Arab representatives, and daredevil missions by Israeli agents, neither Israeli intelligence nor diplomats have provided conclusive evidence of the soldiers' fate. The most vital lead came from an Israeli agent who disappeared and was believed killed in 1986 soon after he reported that he saw Baumel in Syria.

Repeated reports that the bodies of the soldiers were interred by Abu Jihad's men after the battle were never fully pursued. This week, Freih Abu Medein, the appointed "justice minister" for the Palestinian authority, repeated a PLO claim that the three bodies were buried by Abu Jihad "himself" near the battle site.

As a senior intelligence officer put it, "Despite all our efforts, we failed. We didn't provide the political leadership with either a military option or a negotiating option."

Today, senior officials acknowledge, the search for the MiAs has been one of the most bungled operations in Israeli history. It was plagued by poor intelligence gathering, interservice rivalries within the IDF and the Defense Ministry, inadequate civilian supervision and unclear guidelines of when a soldier should be regarded as dead.

The Israeli failure has not been limited to the MiAs from Sultan Ya'akoub. Much of the same negligence has applied to the search for Air Force navigator Ron Arad, from whom there has been no sign of life since 1987, one year after his capture. The abduction of Mustafa Dirani last month, some military sources say, is another example of a dramatic operation taken years too late.

Senior officials recalling the MiA saga still become visibly upset by their memories. "What do you want me to say? That they {some of those involved in MiA search} were a bunch of degenerates and liars?" asks one source, who did not want to be identified. "Well, that's the way it was."

The intelligence blunders began immediately after the Battle of Sultan Ya'akoub. At the time, at least six soldiers from two tanks had been declared missing. Baumel, Feldman, commander Hezi Shai and Ariel Lieberman had been in one tank; Zohar Lipschitz and Yehuda Katz were in the other.

Their fate could have been determined within hours. The battle was filmed in its entirety by a pilotless reconnaissance plane that hovered over the Bekaa Valley. It seemed that getting the answer to the fate of the missing soldiers would simply take a push of the video button.

For weeks, the IDF manpower division pressed military intelligence for the video cassette. When manpower finally received the tape, the Sultan Ya'akoub battle was not there. "The video had been recorded over by the time we got it," recalls Col. Shlomit Carmi, former head of the missing persons unit, in an interview with Ron Ben-Yishai on the New Channel Two last December. Her account has been confirmed by senior defense officials.

Two weeks after the battle, Israeli intelligence had another opportunity to clarify the fate of at least one MiA. In an interview with the Jordanian daily A-Dustour, Palestinian fighter Mustafa Ahmis, who was freed in a prisoner exchange in 1979, claimed, "Among those {Israelis} who have fallen captive in Beirut was tank commander Tesi Shai ..."

Israeli intelligence spotted the article and thought nothing of it. There was no Israeli MiA named Tesi. There was, however, an Israeli soldier missing named Hezi Shai.

It was a costly mistake, senior defense sources now say. Nearly two years later, Ahmed Jibril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, acknowledged he was holding an Israeli soldier and said he was ready for a prisoner exchange with Israel. Jibril's prisoner was tank commander Shai, one of the four crew members missing from the Battle of Sultan Ya'akoub. "We had the answer about Hezi Shai in A-Dustour, but we read it wrong," says Maj. -Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, head of IDF military intelligence during the Lebanon War.

Maj. -Gen. Amos Yaron, former head of the IDF manpower division, goes further. "It was a big blow to the organization," he says. "The key lesson is there wasn't enough attention paid by military intelligence to the issue of the MiAs. In the aftermath, the intelligence improved."

Critics say these mistakes were compounded by a conception that the MiAs were killed by enemy fire. On July 4, 1982, Israeli military intelligence learned that four Palestinian fighters and Syrian secret police arrived in a truck at the Damascus Jewish cemetery. The Palestinians told Syria's Chief Rabbi Abraham Hamra that they had four bodies for burial along with name tags, which Israeli intelligence sources reported were provided by the PLO's Fatah faction, headed by Yasser Arafat. Hamra was not allowed to open the coffins.

Still, to Israeli military intelligence, this was a big break. Four Israeli soldiers were missing from the Baumel tank. Four bodies were buried in the Damascus cemetery. The conclusion was that they were the same people.

"We told them {the families} that 80 percent of the answer to the whereabouts of their sons was in the Damascus Jewish cemetery," recalls Saguy, today mayor of Bat Yam.

That percentage quickly dropped. On August 15, Syrian officials confirmed that they were holding three prisoners, including Ariel Lieberman, one of the four members of Baumel's tank crew. On September 26, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited several Israeli PoWs, including Lieberman.

The families of the MiAs were pressing the political leadership for answers. Who indeed was buried in the Damascus Jewish cemetery? Saguy, who met with the families in late 1982, offered to mount an operation to exhume the bodies in Damascus and somehow bring them to Israel. The mission, as Saguy put it, would be dangerous and soldiers might be captured or killed.

"We planned an operation to get the bodies out of cemetery," Saguy recalls. "I told Baumel the operation could end in tragedy. Baumel said, 'Don't do it.' "

In October 1983, Israel learned for certain when the Red Cross was permitted to exhume the four graves in the Damascus Jewish cemetery. Only one body was that of an Israeli. He was identified as Zohar Lifschitz. He had been in the tank of MiA Yehuda Katz.

But by that time, many other leads had gone cold. One concerned reports that the MiAs were paraded - either alive or dead - in Damascus hours after they were taken from Sultan Ya'akoub. Several news accounts asserted that Syrians and Palestinians had paraded an Israeli tank and crew through the streets of the Syrian capital.

Dean Brelis, who reported then for Time magazine, recalls he was tipped by a Palestinian source that "something interesting could be seen" in downtown Damascus. It was a parade of Syrian and Palestinian troops and vehicles. In the middle was an Israeli tank.

"A flatbed truck followed the tank," Brelis says, quoting the notes he wrote at the time. "It contained what I believed were three young Israel Defense Force soldiers. Their hands and ankles were chained. They looked deeply saddened, if not ashamed by their plight. They did not seem scared. The parade moved slowly out of sight, through the massive crowd hysterical with ecstasy. "I requested an opportunity to interview and photograph the three Israeli PoWs, and was told it was impossible at that time."

The Defense Ministry and the IDF were skeptical of the reports that the MiAs from Sultan Ya'akoub were taken alive. First, Syrian army commanders had maintained that the missing Sultan Ya'akoub soldiers were dead. Intelligence analysts reported that the Israeli tank seen in the Damascus parade was a Centurion. The Baumel tank was a Patton. Years later, a senior IDF officer recalls receiving a statement from a UN officer in Damascus who insisted that neither he nor his men saw an Israeli soldier on display.

Nonetheless, defense officials helped the families conduct independent searches, which included trips to Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. Newton Froelich - a former Washington, DC, lawyer who helped the Baumels - recalls that in 1984 he was offered an office in the Defense Ministry to phone journalists who were in Damascus in the early days of the Lebanon War.

Froelich presented the civilian head of the Defense Ministry MiA team, Shmuel Tamir, with a list of 30 eyewitnesses to the Damascus parade who the attorney said had not been approached by Israeli representatives. Tamir, Froelich recalls, appeared impressed.

"He {Tamir} said, 'You're filling this hole in the investigation that's a mile wide. Thank you,' " Froelich says.

But Froelich believes that Tamir, who died in 1987, and his aides were not taking the families' investigation seriously. "They were intelligent, sweet and kind," Froelich says, recalling the MiA team. "But they humored me. Tamir had done no investigation at all. He relied totally on the army conclusion that the tank crew was dead."

Maj. -Gen. Moshe Nativ, head of manpower until 1983, says Tamir and his predecessor and law partner Arye Marinski, were the wrong people to oversee the search for the MiAs. Tamir and Marinski, both of whom had been seriously ill, might have been brilliant attorneys. "But they were at the end of their days and strength," says Nativ, today director-general of the Jewish Agency. "These people also didn't know the army or how to deal with it."

As Froelich and Baumel searched for leads, the first physical trace of the MiAs was obtained by Israel. It was a wax impression of Baumel's IDF tag. In 1984, Jordan's Princess Dina, whose husband was a high-ranking PLO official being held prisoner in Israel, presented the wax impression of Baumel's IDF tag to Israeli journalist Aharon Barnea. Barnea reported the information and gave the wax impression to a senior intelligence officer, Gadi Zohar.

The wax impression was just one indication that the PLO, despite its denials, knew plenty about the MiAs. In late 1985, eastern Jerusalem editors Hanna Siniora and Ziad Abu Zayyad visited Arafat's second-in-command, Khalil Wazir, and saw the actual tag - only half of which was given to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last year - in his personal safe.

Siniora recalls that Wazir, codenamed Abu Jihad, also reported the fate of the Sultan Ya'akoub MiAs, an assessment Arafat repeated to Rabin this year and Abu Medein repeated this week. "He said all three {Israeli soldiers} were killed in battle and are buried near the site," Siniora recalls. Abu Medein says only Abu Jihad, assassinated by Israel purportedly in 1988, and "two or three people" know where the burial ground is. He says he could not identify those people. "Abu Jihad didn't leave a map of the area," he says. "Unfortunately, Abu Jihad was killed by the Israelis and they killed the secret with him."

The IDF filed the wax impression of Baumel's tag, and officers never found it again. Military sources today acknowledge that they don't know where the impression is. They have not provided an explanation of what happened.

For nearly two years, perhaps out of embarrassment or simply feeling that the Baumels didn't need to know, the IDF failed to tell the family about the wax impression of Zachary's dog tag. But a senior IDF officer did tell a member of another MiA family. Until today, not one Israeli security source has provided a reason.

"There was no formal decision not to tell the Baumels of the wax impression," a senior IDF officer recalls. "We thought the wax impression was significant. Why didn't we tell them? I don't know. Maybe we didn't want them to know the source {of the tag}."

The Baumels were furious. They called for a court-martial of Carmi, then head of the missing persons unit, a demand that was not met. "This was really criminal," Yona Baumel recalls. "If this was a military secret, then why was it told to a member of some other family? She {Carmi} then should have been prosecuted for passing on a military secret."

Carmi refuses to comment.

Yona Baumel learned of the wax impression after he returned from Amman, one of several trips he took to follow up leads that senior defense officials today assert they had known were false. In June 1986, US diplomats helped arrange a meeting between Baumel and a Jordan television host, Haroun Mechamid, who two years earlier had claimed that Palestinians were holding the Sultan Ya'akoub MiAs.

Mechamid told Baumel and Froelich that he saw Zachary in December 1982, six months after the battle in the Bekaa Valley. Baumel's captors allowed Mechamid to peep into his cell and they showed him the Israeli's identification papers, the TV host told the elder Baumel, adding that the soldier looked healthy. The captors did not allow Mechamid to speak to Baumel.

Baumel began to celebrate on the plane back to Cairo. "He was in the plane with a martini on the flight back to Cairo, saying 'My son is alive,' " Froelich recalls.

Both men returned to Tel Aviv and reported to the Defense Ministry team. The Israelis were skeptical. IDF intelligence had already concluded that Mechamid was a liar. Some officers concluded from the testimony Shai and Lieberman gave after they were returned from Syria in prisoner exchanges that the remaining two tank crew members were dead.

"If I could choose between whom I should believe, the Jordanian broadcaster or our own people, then I would believe our soldiers," says Yaron, former head of the manpower division.

As it turned out, Jordanian officials belatedly agreed with the Israeli intelligence community and never gave Mechamid permission to help the Baumels. A US Embassy cable from Amman reported that Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid Rifai had "serious doubts about how much Mechamid knew and feared that the family would put too much weight or hope on Mechamid. Rifai was concerned that Israel not blame Jordan if Mechamid disappoints or uses his good offices for his own aggrandizement."

Years later, Froelich, still convinced the broadcaster was sincere, shakes his head at the memory. "It was another lead that went cold," he says.

The same year, Baumel was off again - this time to Berlin, accompanied by Tel Aviv attorney Ory Slonim. They met with an Israeli drug dealer. He had an Arab partner who was said to have been in Tadmor prison in Syria, near the Iraqi border, where Israelis had been secretly detained in the 1950s. The Arab dealer said he saw Israeli soldiers in Tadmor after the Lebanon War.

Finally, the Israeli agreed to be accompanied by an Israeli intelligence agent to meet the Arab drug dealer in Denmark and hear his story. Slonim immediately made the phone calls for an agent to meet him in Berlin.

It took two weeks for the agent to arrive. By that time, the Israeli drug dealer feigned illness and refused to cooperate.

Today, the episode still sparks debate among some of the IDF officers involved in the affair. Some believe the Berlin dealer had hard information but backed out. Others, particularly intelligence sources, say the story was hogwash. For his part, Slonim refuses to comment.

But even the leads provided by the IDF itself were often ignored by senior officers. The reason stemmed from the rivalries within the military, particularly between the manpower division and the Intelligence Corps.

Of the two, military intelligence was clearly the more powerful. The manpower division had to deal with the families, their complaints and their worries. But it was completely dependent on intelligence for any information concerning the MiAs.

The result was that most of the manpower division's efforts were wasted.

In the early 1980s, the division entrusted a reserve colonel with long experience in South Lebanon with finding the MiAs from Sultan Ya'akoub. Lt. -Col. Yud, as he wants to be known, searched the countryside for clues and spoke to numerous residents and guerrillas.

One lead was an imam in the southern Lebanese village of Ita el-Fouchar, near Sultan Ya'akoub. He was said to have participated in a rite in which the bodies of MiAs were displayed. The imam was said to have known their burial place.

The Islamic clergyman refused to meet Yud and the officer urged his superiors - in an operation that echoes last month's capture of Dirani - to kidnap the imam and force him to cooperate. "I didn't get the tools I needed," said Yud, during an interview with Ron Ben-Yishai on Channel Two last year. "During the entire time, there was no feedback on the information I provided." A senior officer who worked with Yud agrees. "They put all sorts of obstacles in his way," the officer recalls. "He had a problem getting even the basics, like gasoline and a car."

Col. Menahem Digly, a reserve intelligence officer who commanded Yud, says eventually the team stopped operating. "The whole effort faded away," he recalls. "They stopped dealing with this." Privately, the IDF acknowledged that it wasn't getting anywhere with the search for the Sultan Ya'akoub MiAs. Two IDF reports from 1986 agreed that the intelligence-gathering effort was "terrible."

In January 1987, the IDF, led by Lt. -Col. Yona Tilman, then in charge of the missing soldiers unit, recommended a reassessment. Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister, eventually approved it. He asked Maj. -Gen. Aharon Yariv, a former military intelligence chief who was then head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, to head a review committee.

In the end, the intelligence community rejected the committee's proposals.

The debate over the fate of the MiAs raged even within the IDF manpower division, with different units giving the families opposing assessments. The casualty unit, which dealt with the MiA families, tried to reassure them that the IDF was doing everything it could to find their sons. The missing soldiers unit, responsible for finding the MiAs, told the families that their children were dead.

(BOX 1) MiA Chronology

The following are key dates in the MiA saga:
June 11, 1982: An Israeli tank unit is caught in an ambush in Sultan Ya'akoub, in the Bekaa Valley in northeastern Lebanon. Around 40 soldiers, including First Sgt. Zvi Feldman, Sgt. Zachary Baumel and Cpl. Yehuda Katz, are reported missing in action. Most of those missing are located within a day.
June 12, 1982: Two members of Baumel's tank crew, Hezi Shai and Ariel Lieberman, are captured. Shai is held by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Lieberman by the Syrians.
July 4, 1982: The Syrians bury four in the Damascus Jewish cemetery. The IDF believes they are that of the Baumel tank crew.
July 9, 1982: The Jordanian daily A-Dustour quotes a claim of Palestinian guerrillas that "Tesi Shai" is captured. IDF intelligence ignores the story.
August 15, 1982: Syria confirms holding Lieberman.
September 17, 1983: The International Committee of the Red Cross exhumes the four graves. Three are not Israelis. The exception is Zohar Lipschitz, who was in Katz's tank.
April 1983: IDF soldier Samir Assad is kidnapped near Sidon. His body is returned seven years later.
November 24, 1983: Fatah exchanges six IDF soldiers, held more than 14 months, for 4,500 prisoners in the Ansar camp and 100 more held in Israeli jails.
June 28, 1984: 291 Syrian soldiers and 20 security prisoners are exchanged for IDF soldiers Yohanon Alon, Gil Fogel and Ariel Lieberman as well as three Israeli civilians. The bodies of five men said to be Israeli soldiers were also delivered. Three of them were not Israelis.
May 20, 1985: Over the objections of the families of the Sultan Ya'akoub MiAs, Israel releases 1,150 security prisoners for IDF soldiers Hezi Shai, Nissim Salem and Yosef Groff.
February 1986: Two Givati Brigade soldiers, Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh, are captured by Hizbullah gunmen in south Lebanon. In late 1991, the IDF determines that they are dead. The familes are awaiting their return to Israel.
October 1986: IAF navigator Ron Arad bails out of his Phantom jet over south Lebanon and is captured by the Amal militia. By 1988, he is handed over to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard by an Amal defector. - S.R.

At staff meetings, representatives of the two units would often argue. "If you are an investigator and you think they're dead, how much would you invest in your efforts?" asks Col. Varda Pomerantz, a former commander of the casualty unit.

The focus of the debate was Shlomit Carmi, the colonel who from 1983 until 1989 was involved in the MiA search. Until 1986, as head of the missing soldiers unit, Carmi reported directly to the head of the manpower division and became convinced that the three remaining MiAs from Sultan Ya'akoub were dead. Col. Tsfiya Gilat, another former commander of the casualty unit, recalls that Carmi's assessment hurt the IDF's relations with the MiA families.

"She made an assumption from the beginning that they were dead," Gilat recalls. "Except for this assumption, there was no proof."

In 1984, military sources recall, Carmi advised Hezi Shai's wife, Iris, not to pin much hope on her husband being alive. Three days later, Ahmed Jibril announced he was holding Shai captive. "Shlomit Carmi did damage by her words," Gilat recalls.

Carmi, who would not confirm the incident, acknowledges that she was "frank" with the families. She says that when the IDF brass met the families, the officers would feign interest in the plight of the MiAs. But privately, they would pity the families for fooling themselves that the soldiers were still alive.

"The security establishment would give them all kinds of sweets," Carmi recalled in the interview with Ron Ben-Yishai. "They didn't tell them the truth. It angered me."

At first, Carmi tried to convince Rabin, defense minister at the time, that the MIAs were dead. During a 1986 meeting with Carmi, one participant recalls, the colonel asked what would happen to the case of the MiAs after seven years. Rabin was said to have replied, "We'll wait another seven years."

In May 1987, Carmi tried again - this time with the new chief of staff, Lt. -Gen. Dan Shomron. This time, her assessment, shared by others in her unit, was almost adopted by the IDF's chief rabbi, Maj. -Gen. Gad Navon. Military sources who worked with Carmi say Navon was ready to declare during a 1987 meeting with Shomron that the Sultan Ya'akoub MiAs were dead but their burial place was unknown. At that meeting, however, Navon had a change of heart. An intelligence officer reported that Baumel had been seen by an Israeli agent several months earlier.

The intelligence report angered those IDF officers who were convinced the three MiAs were dead. They argued that the information was not confirmed, that the agent had disappeared and presumably been killed before he could follow up his report. Privately, the officers claimed this was a way for IDF intelligence to cover up its past failures.

"So what if somebody said he saw Baumel?" an IDF source asks. "Do you know how many people today claim they saw Ron Arad?"

Another opportunity to declare the MiAs dead came in 1989. Rabin, then defense minister, was briefed by the manpower division on evidence presented that the MiAs were dead. The officers reviewed testimony of soldiers who last saw Baumel, Feldman and Katz.

Then, an IDF intelligence officer presented his findings, including the reported sighting of Baumel. This time, Rabin did not even have time to reflect. He interrupted the meeting to attend to another matter and did not return to resolve the MiA affair.

The refusal to resolve the MiA affair angered Carmi and her colleagues. They asserted that the main reason that the MiAs were still regarded as alive was the pressure of the political leadership, particularly that of Rabin. They maintained that the IDF was setting a dangerous precedent by actively investigating every single soldier sent to the front whose body could not be found. "Sometimes there are mysteries that cannot be resolved," says an officer who served with Carmi. "The families have to accept that. Do you think we will be able to look for what could be hundreds or thousands of soldiers missing in the next war, heaven forbid?"

Carmi, in a brief telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post, said: "I gave a promise to the head of the manpower division that I wouldn't respond to any questions by reporters and that I would not meet with reporters. I have to keep this promise."

Defense Ministry sources say Rabin's attitude toward the MiAs was typical of that of many political leaders. They agreed to repeatedly raise the issue publicly and privately. They spent much time speaking to the families. But they failed to adopt recommendations that could have resolved the affair.

The best example occurred in 1987. Shamir's military secretary, Azriel Nevo, had pushed for and won a cabinet discussion of the search for the MiAs. He proposed that the government adopt the chief recommendation of the Yariv committee: that an overall authority, accountable only to the prime minister and the defense minister, be appointed.

But at the cabinet meeting, the military brass objected. The manpower division chief, Maj. -Gen. Matan Vilna'i, urged that the status quo be maintained. Rabin agreed. Shamir dropped the issue. Shamir, who could not recall the specific meeting, said many proposals were considered during his years as prime minister. Rabin refused to be interviewed for this article.

Today, the families say, Rabin has little time for the MiA issue. Instead, they say, he has become preoccupied with negotiations with Syria and the PLO.

Last fall, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles, the MiA families were called in by the head of IDF manpower, Maj. -Gen. Yoram Yair, who urged them not to speak to reporters or interfere with the peace process.

Miriam Baumel quickly learned what the new Israeli policy meant. In February, she traveled to the US on a trip paid by the government to recruit support for the MiAs. She told American audiences that Arafat has the answer to the whereabouts of the MiAs.

In response, American student activists decided to establish a booth in front of the PLO mission at the UN. The Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has a task force on the Israeli MiAs, called the Israel Consulate-General in New York for advice. The consulate, on orders from the Foreign Ministry, objected.

"We wanted the booth to be outside either the PLO mission or the Syrian Embassy," recalls David Felsenthal, the organizer of the students. "The Israeli Consulate-General told us to go to the Iranian Embassy. To us, that meant that they wanted us to do nothing."

Foreign Ministry officials confirm the account. They say a vigil in front of the PLO office during the negotiations on Gaza-Jericho First would have been counterproductive. "We raise the issue with the PLO at all levels," one official says. "Our impression is that as long as the Gaza-Jericho process is not complete, Arafat will not deal with this {MiA} issue."

In the process, the families say, Israel is giving away its last bargaining chip. In April, the families urged the prime minister not to release the thousands of Palestinian prisoners until the fate of their sons was resolved. Rabin said he would consider the request. In the following weeks, his government released more than 1,000 prisoners.

To the families, it was another victory for realpolitik. "We're tired of being orphans," Miriam Baumel says. "We're asking that every soldier and every parent of a soldier realize that this could happen to them soon."

Some of the IDF officers involved in the case quietly agree. They say sometimes they are kept awake wondering how Israel could pour so much effort into the search for the MiAs and see virtually no result.

Nativ, the former head of manpower, has one explanation. "What happened really was that some people {involved in the MiA search} got tired," he says. "They say, 'OK, we tried.' I say we have to be convinced that we have the facts. Here, we cannot say that we have the facts that they are dead." For Digly, the colonel who was part of the IDF search for the MiAs, the affair is unsettling. His words reflect a crisis of confidence by some senior IDF officers in the intelligence community. "If we don't know this {the fate of the MiAs}, then this scares me," says Digly. "Because then I wonder what else they don't know."

(BOX 2) A Costly Ambush
Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were sent to the Lebanon front in the Battle of Sultan Ya'akoub, regarded by military analysts as one of the biggest blunders in the war. Israeli tanks were ordered to secure the Beirut-Damascus highway to stop a Palestinian retreat. Today, commanders acknowledge the regiment commander was not provided with vital intelligence - such as the deployment of Syrians troops and Palestinian guerrillas throughout the area.

The result was that the 11 tanks that made their way through Sultan Ya'akoub drove into an ambush. They were fired upon all night. Forty soldiers were missing from that battle; most of them were found within a day or so. The following morning, July 11, 1982, the regiment commander, at the head of the convoy, ordered his tanks to make a run for it back to Israeli lines. Hezi Shai's tank was last in the file.

According to Shai's account after his return in the 1985 prisoner exchange, the tank was struck by a shell and its turret was snagged in a tree. Shai, Ariel Lieberman, Feldman and Baumel tumbled out of the burning tank. They took cover in an orange grove as they came under fire from a nearby Syrian armored personnel carrier. It was about 8:30 a.m. on June 11.

From here, the account grows fuzzy. Shai recalled that Lieberman told him that Baumel, who had driven the tank all night and was lying still, was dead. A senior IDF officer who debriefed both soldiers reported that they called Baumel and tried to move him. Shai and Lieberman later said they do not recall this. Moreover, Lieberman disputed Shai's assertion

that he reported that Baumel was dead. Shai and Lieberman did recall that Feldman had a large wound in his head.

At close to 9 a.m., Shai and Lieberman decided to move on and left Baumel and Feldman. Shai, whose wife was pregnant, thought the best course was to surrender. Lieberman wanted to try to make it back to Israeli lines. That night, they lost each other. Shai walked into a tent, which turned out to be a position of Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Lieberman was captured by Syrian troops.

Katz was in another tank in the Sultan Ya'akoub battle. His tank was hit by a shell and caught fire. IDF investigators say one crew member was killed. Another was hurled out of the tank unharmed. The driver stayed behind the wheel with Katz trapped in the back of the vehicle. IDF investigators say the driver, apparently in shock, was unable to extricate Katz, who was reportedly injured, out of the tank. Finally, the driver abandoned the tank, leaving Katz behind. He later claimed that Katz was bleeding from his nose, was not breathing and did not have a pulse. Later, the tank's driver, Yehuda Kaplan, was placed under hypnosis. Maj. -Gen. Moshe Nativ, then head of the IDF manpower division, says the information Kaplan provided led the army to conclude that he did not know conclusively that Katz was dead. Years later, the IDF refused the request by the Bamuels to place Shai under hypnosis.

Zohar Lipschitz, killed by a shell that hit the Katz tank, was buried in the Damascus Jewish cemetery. His body was eventually returned to Israel.

Most IDF officers agree that had these soldiers been missing in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, their fate would have been determined quickly. Thousands of Israeli soldiers were missing in that war and hundreds after the last prisoner exchange with Israel and Syria.

Israel concluded that neither country was hiding prisoners and eventually those soldiers unaccounted for were declared dead with their burial places unknown.

After the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, IDF investigators searched the Sinai and Egypt for clues to their whereabouts. All but 19 soldiers have been found from those missing in the Yom Kippur war. Today, IDF intelligence sources say the answer to the whereabouts of the Sultan Ya'akoub MiAs can be found with either Fatah, which held eight Israeli soldiers at one point; the Syrian-aligned Palestinian group Saiqa, which in 1982 was part of the PLO umbrella, and Syria.

"The Syrians could have found out had they wanted to," a senior intelligence source says. "We brought the Syrians all the information. We've heard nothing."

In January, a delegation of US congressional aides traveled to Lebanon and Syria to search for all of the MiAs. The delegation received permission from Syrian President Hafez Assad to tour the Bekaa Valley. Both Israeli and US officials believed that Assad's permission was linked to his efforts to convince the State Department to remove Syria from the list of nations that sponsor international terrorism.

The first job for the congressional delegation was to search sites near Sultan Ya'akoub where the MiAs might have been buried. In the end, Israeli and US sources say, the delegation received virtually no help from the Syrians. Some delegation members came away convinced that the Syrians have little information. The delegation cut short its visit and returned to Washington.

One congressional source recalls that the delegation asked to look at the graves where the MiAs might have been buried. But, he added, "We don't know precisely where the graves are."

Since then, the search has been put on hold. First, the Syrian Defense Ministry liaison with the US congressional delegation, Gen. Adnan Tayyarah, died of cancer. The Syrians have not appointed a successor and a return visit by the delegation has not been scheduled.

"We're anxious not to come up empty-handed when we go back," a delegation source says. "There are indications that there's been progress since we left, but I don't have the sense they've come to a conclusion {on a date for a visit}."
- S.R. and Hillel Kutler in Washington

Return to Archive