On a hot August morning 15 years ago, an Israeli soldier climbed down the stairs of a guard tower at an artillery base set beside a remote two-lane road on the Golan Heights. He left behind a science fiction paperback titled “Quantum Leap.” Wearing fatigues and carrying only his rifle, he exited the camp.
No trace of him has ever been found.
The disappearance of the soldier, Sgt. Guy Hever, on August 17, 1997, remains one of Israel’s most baffling unsolved mysteries.
“This is harder than grief. It’s something that is not resolved,” said his mother, Rina Hever. She spoke this week in the family’s home in the upscale community of Kochav Ya’ir — a red-roofed house decorated with Guy’s paintings and charcoal sketches and haunted by his absence. Twenty at the time of his disappearance, Guy Hever would now be 35 years old.
In Israel, a small, tightly knit country, people do not tend to disappear for long — it might take months or years, but information has a way of getting around. Authorities first believed the soldier had run away and was in hiding, and later that he had committed suicide or had died in other circumstances, his body lost somewhere amid the gullies, canyons, high grasses, basalt stone piles and minefields of the Golan.
But years of searches by volunteer teams, soldiers, policemen, trained dogs, aircraft, and robots inserted into mined areas have turned up nothing. His rifle, which would not have biodegraded or been consumed by animals, has never been located.
In the absence of any concrete information, what remains is a seemingly unlikely contention supported by Hever’s family — that he was kidnapped and is being held in Syria. His family now hopes that the disintegration of the Assad regime, and the flow of defectors out of Syria, might provide new information.
“I have not the shadow of a doubt that he’s alive,” Rina Hever said. Rina, a textile engineer, comes across as a woman struggling to rationally analyze a world that has dealt her a parent’s worst nightmare and presented her with a series of barely conceivable possibilities.
The phone rang at the family’s home several hours after Guy Hever vanished. It was one of his commanders, who thought the missing soldier might have made his way south to his parents. Later in the day, officers showed up at the door.
Hever, it emerged, had refused to take part in a social activity organized by his artillery outfit, and that day he was supposed to face a low-level military tribunal for punishment. This appears to have been the latest in a string of run-ins between Hever and his superiors. He was upset. Without permission, he left the base — an enclosure of pre-fab buildings, eucalyptus trees and olive drab vehicles nearly indistinguishable from dozens of other Israeli installations across the plateau captured from Syria in 1967. The base, Camp Thunder, faces an open field; this week, a few cows grazed there behind coils of wire. It is 14 miles from the Syrian frontier.
It is not uncommon for a disgruntled soldier to bolt his base for home, and Hever’s commanders assumed that day that he would soon contact his family.
When he did not, Rina Hever recounted, she and her husband Eitan, a psychiatrist, traveled to the camp to speak with their son’s commanders and comrades. Then they organized search parties to comb the area. Military authorities continued to assume the soldier had gone missing of his own volition and was hiding. The family felt certain the military suspected they knew their son’s whereabouts.
As months went by, information began trickling in. A psychologist from a Golan community near the artillery base contacted the family and police to say she had seen a soldier at a junction called Katzabia, near the central Golan town of Katzrin, several hours after Guy Hever left his guard post.
The junction is about 4 miles east of the base. Based on a photograph published after the disappearance, she believed that the soldier she saw was Hever. He was heading away from home — and toward the border with Syria.
“On Sunday 17.8.97 at 13:45 I saw Guy at a hitchhiking stop at Katzabia heading north,” the witness wrote in a fax to the family. “The soldier I saw was wearing a combination of a dress uniform and fatigues, had a long rifle, and the glasses he was wearing were different from those that appear in the photograph — if my memory serves, their frame was darker,” she wrote.
That description, Rina Hever says, matched her son. Another, less reliable, report came in later from a birdwatcher who had seen a figure in Israeli fatigues along the Israel-Syria frontier later the same day.
As time went on and the search inside Israel’s borders continued to be fruitless, Rina Hever became convinced that Guy was in Syria, held there against his will. In this scenario, Hever was kidnapped on the Golan and somehow spirited east across the frontier.
There have been no known cross-border abductions of this kind. But Druze Arabs from formerly Syrian villages on the Golan have been arrested in the past for serving as agents of the Assad regime — the latest arrest, of a man from the town of Majdal Shams, was in late July of this year — and there are places where the border is porous, especially for people intimately familiar with the landscape. Drug smuggling along the border is fairly common.
And though it might seem unlikely that the Syrians would hold an Israeli without making the matter public or issuing demands for his release, there are precedents.
In early 1988, Massad Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, flew to Greece for a vacation and disappeared. He surfaced in late 2001, having been held in Syria for nearly 14 years.
Abu Toameh, it later emerged, had been kidnapped by a Palestinian faction operating under the auspices of the Syrian regime. His captors held him in an underground cell beneath a training base in Damascus without disclosing that they had him and without making any demands. The Syrian government repeatedly denied he was in the country.
In December 2001, however, after years of efforts by his family, he was extracted by elements in the Syrian regime and returned to Israel. His brother, Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh, wrote about it for a Hebrew-language Jerusalem paper, Yerushalayim, in 2002.
After nearly two decades in journalism, Abu Toameh wrote, “one of the most amazing, shocking and moving stories was in fact in my own backyard, under my nose.”
“After 14 years of uncertainty, struggles and painful swinging between hope and despair, the moment arrived in which my older brother, Massad, returned home. After so many years of being imprisoned in a small underground cell on the outskirts of Damascus, a different brother returned to us, different from the one we had known. A man who had not seen the light of day, who did not know when it was day and when it was night. A man who for years ate half a pita for breakfast and a potato in the evening, who fought with the rats over his bread, and who would tirelessly repeat details from his memory so he would not lose his mind.
“After 14 years, my brother returned to us, sick and broken, but alive,” he wrote.
If something similar befell Hever, he might have been taken by the Syrians as a future bargaining chip; with no Syrian POWs in Israeli hands, the regime simply had no reason to make his presence public and attract pressure for his release.
Over the years, the family used every contact they could find with links to Syria: the former US ambassador to Israel and Syria, Edward Djerejian; former president Jimmy Carter; agents of German intelligence and other covert services in Europe. They received no response from Damascus.
In February 2007, a previously unknown and possibly fictional organization calling itself the Resistance Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights released a statement online saying it would free an Israeli soldier captured on the Golan Heights — seemingly a reference to Hever — in return for Golan Druze prisoners in Israeli jails. Nothing came of the statement, and it remains unclear if the Resistance Committees exist.
That same year, news of the ongoing search for Hever reached Marion Keunecke, a resident of Berlin who had studied Judaism and lived in Israel for more than 20 years. A photograph of the soldier triggered her memory of an incident two years earlier, she recalled this week.
In 2005, Keunecke was in Aleppo, Syria, on a trip she described as a mission — inspired, she said, by her reading of the Bible — to contact Jews living in Muslim countries. Her activities attracted the suspicions of Syrian security forces, and plainclothes agents arrested her at the Aleppo train station on the morning of May 3 and took her for interrogation.
Rifling through her luggage, they quickly found a second German passport with Israeli stamps. Suspecting she was a spy, they placed her in a car under armed guard and moved her to what she believes was a military compound in Damascus.
That evening she was subjected to an interrogation that began at 10 p.m. and lasted more than four hours. The previous sessions had included only a translator, interrogator and stenographer, she said, but this session was held in a well-furnished room and was attended by perhaps two dozen men. They were all in civilian clothes, except for one man in uniform who she remembered was greeted respectfully by the others.
Until that point, she had been questioned in English and German. But this time a different man spoke — in what she identified as perfect Hebrew. He was dark-skinned and had a thin face. “This interrogation was different from the ones that came before,” Keunecke said. “There was a sense of expectation. It was like a show, as if they wanted to see how we reacted to each other.”
Her own Hebrew was not sufficient to understand the man’s questions, so after five minutes she requested that the questioning continue in English. Another interrogator took over. “All the expectation in the room went away, like air from a balloon,” she said.
She had never heard of Guy Hever at the time. Two years later, when she first encountered his photograph, she said, “I knew immediately that it was him.” She passed the information on to Israeli authorities, who seem to have dismissed it, and later contacted Rina Hever.
“I met your son, missing soldier Guy Hever, during an interrogation on May 3, 2005, around 22:00 o’clock at night in Damascus, Syria, with 90 percent certainty,” she wrote in a letter to the soldier’s mother. “Of course I cannot say 100 percent because his name was not mentioned.”
Keunecke was later questioned by Dan Hadany, a retired air force colonel who conducted POW negotiations for Israel after the 1967 Six Day War and who now heads the Hever family’s efforts to find the soldier.
“I had no doubt she was telling the truth,” Hadany said. “Based on what we know of the previous behavior of the Syrians, I believe it is entirely likely that Guy Hever is being held in Syria.”
Current efforts, he said, focus on contacting Syria defectors — especially regime officials and former prisoners — who might have information.
Rina Hever is left with nothing but fragments of information that could be clues or mirages. Fifteen years after her son walked out of his base and vanished, she is still pursuing the ghostly image of a 20-year-old soldier across the sun-blasted plateau of the Golan. She follows him from the gate of a military base to a hitchhiking stop along an empty road. She half-glimpses him through a birdwatcher’s binoculars along the frontier, and then he disappears into a shadow world nearly unimaginable from her middle-class living room — a place peopled with armed factions and intelligence services and people who may be hidden or may not exist at all.
Today, her anger seems directed at the Israeli government and military. While Israel has put tremendous resources into winning the release of prisoners like Gilad Shalit, and in finding information about missing servicemen like air force navigator Ron Arad, the circumstances of her son’s disappearance and the early assumptions about him running away of his own volition or committing suicide have left authorities with a palpable ambivalence about the missing artilleryman.
The military initially resisted officially declaring Hever missing, and though he is now considered a missing soldier and a reward has been offered for information, officials still seem reticent about the case. The military declined a request to comment for this story.
“They’ll tell you they’re losing sleep over this,” Rina Hever said of the official bodies tasked with finding her son. “That’s bullshit.”
The military, she charged, is embarrassed over the outright disappearance of one of its men and its 15-year failure to produce a single lead, and would rather the case simply go away.
“If they could, they would claim that Guy Hever never existed at all,” she said.