A commander of a Palestinian terrorist group in Syria said Wednesday the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 Lebanon war were uncovered by armed factions at a Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus.
Anwar Raja, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, said that militants excavated Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel’s body from a cemetery near the Yarmouk refugee camp while searching for his remains and those of two other IDF soldiers who went missing during a bloody skirmish in the early months of the First Lebanon War.
He said the remains had been transferred to Syria after the 1982 battle in the Lebanese border town of Sultan Yacoub.
The Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday that it had repatriated the remains of Baumel via a third country, without providing details. Israel has expanded vast resources over the past 37 years to discover the whereabouts of Baumel and two other Israeli soldiers — Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz — also believed killed in the same battle.
Baumel will be buried on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, the IDF said on Wednesday night.
Raja said Israeli intelligence services coordinated the search for the bodies with the armed factions at Yarmouk. He added that Turkey was likely the third country that facilitated the return of Baumel’s remains to Israel, though Russia is widely believed to have played a role in finding and returning the remains.
According to a Channel 13 News report Wednesday, Baumel’s body was returned together with the remains of at least 10 other people.
The announcement of the discovery was initially delayed as officials believed Feldman’s body would be identified among the remains, an assessment that proved to be incorrect, the Haaretz newspaper reported. Medical examiners at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute have reportedly examined most of the other bodies brought back, and have concluded that none of them were Feldman or Katz.
The report said one body had yet to be ruled out as either of the two Israeli soldiers.
IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus announced earlier Wednesday that Baumel, a Brooklyn-born American immigrant, had been returned to Israel and identified after nearly four decades of intelligence operations.
Conricus declined to elaborate on how the return was arranged or where the remains were found, saying only that “an opportunity arose to locate the body.”
Baumel’s remains, along with his jumpsuit and boots, were returned to Israel “on an El Al plane” via a third country earlier this week, he added.
The Battle of Sultan Yacoub was a 1982 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 Baumel, Feldman and 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.
In 2016, an Israeli tank lost in the battle was returned to Israel by Russia.
In September, Moscow said that it had helped Israel search for the remains of missing soldiers in Islamic State-held territory in Syria.
Spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said at a press conference at the time that Moscow offered the search operation as as goodwill gesture towards Israel in 2015, where both countries were operating militarily.
Month earlier, a PFLP-GC official claimed that Islamic State members and other insurgents had excavated the remains of Baumel, Feldman and Katz from a cemetery near the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to travel to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, just six days ahead of Israeli elections.
Moscow has been a powerful ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in the country’s civil war.
At a Wednesday press conference, Netanyahu said the return of Baumel’s remains was “one of the most moving moments in all my years as prime minister.” He said it was a “repayment of a moral debt to the fallen soldiers of the IDF, a repayment of a moral debt to their families.”
Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt questioned the of timing of Baumel’s return — six days before the Israeli election — saying the emotional end to the decades-long Israeli mission was a “precious” campaign gift for Netanyahu.
“In the game of nations that manipulates the fate of peoples, the handover of the body of an Israeli soldier via unknown mediators is a free but precious gift to Netanyahu for his elections,” Jumblatt tweeted Wednesday, before sarcastically applauding the Syrian for being the “spearhead of Arab, regional and global defiance.”