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IDF tank held by Russia since 1982 returns to Israel

Vehicle seized by Syria during battle of Sultan Yacoub lands at Ben-Gurion Airport, in gesture by Putin to Netanyahu

Israeli tank from the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War seen on display at a Moscow museum. (Courtesy GPO)
Israeli tank from the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War seen on display at a Moscow museum. (Courtesy GPO)

An Israeli tank seized by Syria during the 1982 First Lebanon War in the battle of Sultan Yacoub, and which has been housed in a Russian museum for several decades, was returned to Israel last week, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended an official visit to Moscow.

The tank was flown to Israel at Netanyahu’s request following his meeting with Russia President Vladimir Putin. During his visit Netanyahu formally received the Magach-3 tank on Israel’s behalf.

It will likely be put on display at the Armored Corps Museum in Latrun.

An employee of a cargo company who was at Ben-Gurion Airport when the tank was lowered from the belly of a Russian cargo plane told Ynet News it was “a special and emotional sight” to see the tank return to Israel after 34 years.

The return of the tank, Netanyahu had said in Moscow, would be of some comfort to the families of three IDF soldiers who manned it and who have been missing since its capture.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an official ceremony to receive an IDF tank captured during the First Lebanon War, in Moscow on June 8, 2016 (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an official ceremony to receive an IDF tank captured during the First Lebanon War, in Moscow on June 8, 2016 (GPO)

The tank was seized during the June 11, 1982 battle, considered one of Israel’s worst failures in the war, in which 30 IDF soldiers were killed and another three, who were assigned to the Magach-3, disappeared.

In the ceremony at the Moscow tank museum, Netanyahu thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the “warm humanitarian gesture,” and vowed Israel would not rest until it located the three soldiers, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel.

Syria handed the tank over to its then-ally, the former Soviet Union, so Moscow could use it to study Israeli tank construction. It has been housed at a museum some 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Moscow ever since.

“This is an emotional moment for me and for all the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony. “We mark 25 years since the renewal of diplomatic relations… and our deep connection is an expression of our shared, continuous history of struggle and untold suffering.”

Russian soldiers attend an official ceremony to return an IDF tank captured by Syria during the 1982 Lebanon War, in Moscow on June 8 2016 photo credit: GPO)
Russian soldiers attend an official ceremony to return an IDF tank captured by Syria during the 1982 Lebanon War, in Moscow on June 8 2016 (GPO)

He continued: “Anyone who has fought in battle knows the importance of the principle that we adhere to — in battle, you do not leave a comrade behind. For 34 years, we have searched for our warriors in the knowledge we will not rest until we bring them to Israel for burial. Throughout those 34 years, the Katz, Feldman and Baumel families have had no grave to visit, but now they will have this tank. A remnant of Sultan Yacoub that they can visit and also touch — and through it remember their sons.

Missing-in-action Israel Defense Forces soldiers Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. (The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers)
Missing-in-action Israel Defense Forces soldiers Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. (The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers)

“We will continue to search for them as we still do for Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul [IDF soldiers missing since they fell in the 2014 war with Hamas]. I would like to take this opportunity to thank President Putin profusely for this touching humanitarian gesture, and thank him first and foremost also on behalf of the families,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister also paid tribute to the cooperation between the two nations throughout the process of securing the tank’s return.

“I think this event signifies deep emotional connection between us, and the connection between nations that are from time to time compelled to fight for freedom,” he said.

“Thank you so much for your cooperation with the IDF officers who are here. I thank you, the IDF officers, for the excellent work you have done and I’m sure this tank [placed] in Latrun [the official memorial for fallen Armored Corps troops] will also be symbol of heroism of our soldiers and also of the friendship and closeness between us.”

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