The sister of Yehuda Katz, an IDF soldier declared missing since a 1982 battle in Lebanon, said her family is still hoping he is alive Wednesday, even as Israel brought the body of his comrade to the country for burial 37 years later.
Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel went missing in the 1982 First Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub, along with two other soldiers — Zvi Feldman and Katz — whose whereabouts remain unknown, but are presumed dead.
On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed Baumel’s remains were airlifted to Israel; Feldman and Katz were not located.
“We, the Katz family, continue to wait for Yehuda,” Prichya Heyman, the sister of the missing soldier, told Channel 12.
“We aren’t losing hope, and even though it seems unreasonable, still hope he’s alive,” she said.
The battle of Sultan Yacoub was a skirmish between the Israel Defense Forces and Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in which 21 Israeli servicemen were killed and more than 30 were injured.
Though the three soldiers were generally believed to have been killed in the battle, there has also been speculation and reports that they were captured by the Syrian military in Sultan Yacoub and brought to Damascus.
The IDF said Wednesday that it was still working to locate Feldman and Katz, as well as other Israelis killed or held in captivity, without going into details.
“We will not rest until we return all our sons to our borders: Sgt. Yehuda Katz, Sgt. Zvika Feldman, and all IDF MIAs,” said President Reuven Rivlin.
Baumel’s family was mostly silent in the immediate hours after the announcement that his body had been returned, as they planned funeral arrangements.
Two of Baumel’s siblings, Osna Haberman and Shimon Baumel, thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office Wednesday night.
“I told my mother years ago that they don’t want it enough and aren’t looking enough,” Haberman told Netanyahu, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
She said she told her mother they needed someone who would deliver on the promises, “and now you did.”
“Usually, for bereaved families, life is divided in two — before and after. For you, life was divided in three — before, during, and now. We have fulfilled our commitment,” said Netanyahu.
Baumel’s parents had led an effort for years to locate the remains of Zacharia, including international tours to raise awareness and push governments to pressure Syria and others for information.
His father, Yona, died in 2009.
Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel on an El Al plane via a third country earlier this week, an army spokesman said, without specifying the nation. The third country was widely believed to be Russia, which said in September that it had helped Israel search for the remains of missing soldiers in Islamic State-held territory in Syria.
The IDF, which released few details about the recovery of the body, did not comment on reports that Russia had been involved in the search
In May, an official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command terror group claimed that Islamic State members and other insurgents had excavated the remains of Baumel, Feldman and Katz from a cemetery near the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus.
Baumel was born in Brooklyn on November 17, 1960, the youngest son of Yona and Miriam Baumel. His family moved to Israel in 1970. Baumel was serving as a staff sergeant in the 362nd Armored Battalion of the 399th Brigade. (He was posthumously promoted to sergeant first class.)
On June 10, 1982, his unit was sent into Sultan Yacoub to set up roadblocks in the area. The next morning, they encountered the Syrian military’s 1st Armored Division, and a bloody battle ensued.
By the end of the fighting, 20 Israeli soldiers were killed and more than 30 injured. Baumel, Feldman and Katz were officially declared missing, and two other soldiers were taken captive and later returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange. One of the unit’s tanks was also captured by Syrian forces and brought back to the country as a trophy. In 2016, it was returned to Israel by Russia.
According to the IDF, the remains of Baumel, Feldman and Katz were believed to be in the control of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Syria.
In 1993, half of Baumel’s dogtag was passed along to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by PLO leader Yassar Arafat, giving Israeli Military Intelligence the evidence necessary to determine where Baumel’s remains were located in Syria.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.