One of his achievements on a recent trip to Russia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted earlier this week, was to persuade Moscow to return an Israel Defense Forces tank seized by Syria during First Lebanon War, apparently the one manned in the infamous battle of Sultan Yacoub by three soldiers still considered missing in action.
There is one problem, however: Experts said it is the wrong tank.
While the Russians did indeed give Israel a tank it used in the 1982 Lebanon War and which has been housed in a Russian museum for several decades, the experts noted that the newly returned armored vehicle has no marks showing that it was hit — and therefore could not be the one that Netanyahu asked for.
The tank manned by MIAs Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel — which the prime minister asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to return — was seized during the June 11, 1982 battle that is considered one of Israel’s worst failures in the war. A total of 30 IDF soldiers were killed in the fight, and the three who were assigned to the Magach-3 tank disappeared.
In a June 8 ceremony at the Moscow tank museum, Netanyahu thanked Putin for the “warm humanitarian gesture,” and vowed Israel would not rest until it also located the three soldiers.
But expert Michael Mas told Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday that it was “very sad” that Netanyahu and the media both “fell for these untruths.”
“The tank is not the tank of the missing soldiers. What was returned is a complete tank, and the tank of the missing soldiers is different,” he said.
“This is certainly one of the eight tanks that fell into the hands of the Syrians in that battle with [IDF] Brigade 399, but there are no signs on this tank that people [inside] were hurt. When Netanyahu said there would be respite for the families who have no grave to visit, he was wrong twice. Firstly, it’s not this tank, and secondly, they are still considered missing, not dead,” Mas added.
Another expert, Danny Kriaf, said that the tank that was returned “had the number 817581, while the tank of the missing had another number. One of the tanks was almost certainly burnt from the hit it sustained. It’s clear that the Russians didn’t really care which tank they were giving us, and Netanyahu used it as a gimmick.”
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, the IDF determined 18 years ago that after examining the number of the tank in the Russian museum, the soldiers who were in it were safe and sound.
Yehuda Katz’s sister was furious.
“The families of the missing soldiers are exploding,” said Perhia Heyman. “Why do we need all this spin? Since I heard of the intention to return the tank I waited in anticipation and could not sleep properly. Ten days ago they had the ceremony in Russia, and Netanyahu said the families would have this tank ‘to touch and remember their fallen ones.’ Even then, he knew this was not the right tank, but we still didn’t know. I only received the right tank number on the next day, not through the IDF, and realized this was not Yehuda’s tank.”
Officials at the Prime Minister’s Office said that Israel at no point claimed the tank was the one manned by the missing soldiers.
“We said it was a tank from the battle of Sultan Yacoub and evidence from the battlefield, and this is what the prime minister told the families. No one ever claimed that this was the tank manned by the three,” an official said in a statement.