Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday hailed Israel’s security forces for returning the body of an IDF soldier killed in Lebanon in 1982, as Israelis across the political spectrum expressed mournful relief over the end of the 37-year search.
Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, 21, went missing in the 1982 First Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub, along with two other soldiers whose whereabouts remain unknown. His body was returned to Israel this week, the military said Wednesday.
Netanyahu told a press conference that Baumel’s remains were recovered along with his tzitzit, ritual fringes, and tank jumpsuit.
“This is a repayment of a moral debt to the fallen soldiers of the IDF, a repayment of a moral debt to their families,” said Netanyahu, calling it “one of the most moving moments in all my years as prime minister.”
The prime minister, who is also defense minister, offered little information on the operation that saw Baumel’s body airlifted to Israel.
Netanyahu vowed that Israel would not cease its efforts to locate other missing-in-action and killed-in-action IDF soldiers, including the two servicemen who remain missing since that same 1982 battle.
“We will not cease from this holy mission,” he said.
Tank commander Baumel, a Brooklyn-born American immigrant, was one of three Israeli soldiers whose bodies were never recovered following the battle of Sultan Yacoub, a skirmish between the Israel Defense Forces and Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in which 21 Israeli servicemen were killed.
Netanyahu said Baumel’s death, which was only confirmed Wednesday, is a festering “wound” for both his family and Israel, but “today we remove the uncertainty about Zachary’s fate. Today, we close the circle.”
Though Baumel and the other two soldiers — Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz — 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.
President Reuven Rivlin said he received the news “with great emotion and great pain.”
“We will not rest until we return all our sons to our borders: Sgt. Yehuda Katz, Sgt. Zvika Feldman, and all IDF MIAs,” said the president.
Also addressing the mission was IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, who said that “on the shoulders of IDF commanders, whom I lead, there is a great obligation to take care of every soldier who joins the IDF and swears allegiance to Israel.”
“This was a multi-year effort… during which various studies and operations were carried out to locate the missing persons. The culmination of the effort was a series of operations led by the intelligence branch, which led to the identification and return of Sergeant First Class Baumel,” said Kohavi, without elaborating.
Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel on an El Al plane via a third country earlier this week, a military spokesman said, refusing to specify the nation.
The third country involved in the operation appeared to be Russia, which said in September that it had helped Israel search for the remains of missing soldiers in Syria. Netanyahu hinted that diplomatic efforts were involved, without naming the assisting country, and said additional information would be revealed on the case in the future.
“Our commitment to return the bodies of those missing is a moral and political commitment that Israel has espoused and accompanies us since the founding of the Israel Defense Forces,” said Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff. “We will continue until we bring all of the boys home.”
Politicians from across the political spectrum somberly welcomed the news.
“I am proud at this moment of being a Jew, an Israeli, a minister in the government of the Jewish state which fights for the honor of each IDF soldier — in life and in death,” tweeted Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the New Right party.
“This is a moving and sad day for every Israeli,” said Blue and White’s Yair Lapid. “For too many years, we waited for the day that the family of Sgt. Zachary Baumel would get some comfort. Rest in peace, Zachary, the people of Israel owe you a great debt.”
Hailing the security forces and intelligence who worked to retrieve his remains, Lapid added: “The mission is not yet completed. Two more families are waiting for their loved ones.”