Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel will be buried in Jerusalem on Thursday, the army said, 37 years after he was likely killed in the First Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982 at the age of 21.
Baumel’s funeral was scheduled for 7 p.m. at Mount Herzl, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
After a complex and secret operation, Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel “on an El Al plane” via an unnamed third country earlier this week, a military spokesman said earlier on Wednesday, without specifying the nation.
The announcement brought to a close a decades-long mission by Baumel’s Jerusalem-based, American-born parents to find their son, which included international pressure campaigns and faint hopes that he may have been captured alive during the brutal Sultan Yacoub tank battle.
Yona Baumel, Zachary’s father, died 10 years ago; his mother Miriam is in her 80s.
The third country involved in the mission 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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Russia Thursday. It is not clear if he will return in time to attend Baumel’s funeral.
Netanyahu told a press conference earlier Wednesday 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.”
In 2016, an Israeli tank lost in the battle was returned to Israel by Russia.
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 and more than 30 were injured.
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.
The remains of Feldman and Katz were not recovered in Operation Bittersweet Song, though Israeli officials initially thought Feldman’s body might have been among the other remains recovered in the operation, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
The announcement regarding Baumel was delayed until officials could rule out that possibility, Haaretz said.
According to a Channel 13 News report Wednesday, Baumel’s body was returned together with the remains of at least 10 other people.
A commander of a Palestinian terrorist group in Syria said Wednesday Baumel’s remains were uncovered by armed factions at a Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus.
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 Channel 13 report said one body had yet to be ruled out as either of the two Israeli soldiers.
Katz’s sister told Israeli television on Wednesday the family was holding out hope that he is alive.