Inside the 37-year search for IDF soldier Zachary Baumel

Vast amount of piecemeal data eventually led army’s missing persons unit to specific location, where it directed the Russian military; efforts to find 2 more servicemen ongoing

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Zachary Baumel. (JTA/Courtesy Miriam Baumel)
Zachary Baumel. (JTA/Courtesy Miriam Baumel)

Over the course of nearly 37 years, Israeli intelligence officers searched for the remains of fallen tank commander Zachary Baumel, who went missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub against the Syrian army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

This week, nearly four decades later, Sgt. First-Class Baumel’s body was returned to Israel and will be brought to a Jewish burial at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on Thursday evening.

In Israel, the bittersweet news was greeted with a sense of awe and pride at the lengths the military was prepared to go for its fallen soldiers. Baumel’s father, Yona, died in 2009 without learning of Zachary’s fate, but the rest of his family, including his mother Miriam, who is in her 80s, now have some form of closure.

“We want all IDF soldiers to know that when they enlist, the State of Israel will do everything it takes, if they — heaven forbid — fall captive or go missing, in order to bring them home,” Lt. Col. Nir Israeli, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ missing soldiers unit, told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

In total, there are 175 IDF soldiers who are designated as killed-in-action but whose exact burial places are not known, the majority of them — 95 — from the 1948 War of Independence, Israeli said.

A visitor looks at the memorial set up for soldiers whose burial places are unknown on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery during a ceremony in their honor on March 17, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The missing persons unit, known by its Hebrew acronym EITAN, is charged with searching for them. Three have been found in the past year: Pvt. Livka Shefer, who was killed in 1948; Lt. Yakir Naveh, whose plane crashed in the Sea of Galilee in 1962; and now Baumel.

“The IDF is dedicated to returning all soldiers who are missing or whose burial place is not known. We put a lot of effort and a lot of resources into this,” Israeli said.

However, many of the details surrounding the repatriation of Baumel’s body as part of an effort dubbed “Operation Bittersweet Song” are still secret and subject to military censorship. Until Thursday, when Russian President Vladmir Putin publicly acknowledged it, Israeli officials refused to confirm reports that Russia was a key intermediary in the search effort, saying only that a “third country” was involved. Israel won’t comment on claims by a Palestinian terror group in Syria that the remains were uncovered in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus.

According to Israeli, a degree of ambiguity is necessary “in order to not harm future operations,” specifically the efforts to bring back the remains of two other IDF soldiers missing since the Battle of Sultan Yacoub: Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz.

The remains of Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier who has been officially missing since the 1982 First Lebanon, land in Israel in April 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli said the efforts to locate Feldman and Katz are ongoing and that the discovery of Baumel’s remains helped focus the search.

Katz’s sister on Wednesday said her family still hopes he is alive. “We, the Katz family, continue to wait for Yehuda,” Pirhiya Heyman, the sister of the missing soldier, told Channel 12.

“We aren’t losing hope, and even though it seems unreasonable, still hope he’s alive,” she said.

Feldman was a crewman in the same tank as Baumel. Katz served in another tank, which came under attack some two kilometers away.

“There are reports that have been collected over the years and testimonies that were given. We’re still searching to locate them and hopefully bring them home,” Israeli said over the phone late Wednesday night.

According to Hebrew media reports, approximately 10 other bodies were brought back to Israel along with Baumel’s this week and tested in the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute. They were not found to be matches for Katz or Feldman.

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

Israeli said discussing the methods used to bring back Baumel could make it more difficult to find and return Feldman and Katz.

Yet on Thursday, a senior Israeli diplomatic official revealed to reporters that Russia was continuing to help search for the remains of Feldman and Katz in Syria.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that his country’s military, with Syrian assistance, had retrieved Baumel’s remains.

“Russian Army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military,” Putin said during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow.

The Russian defense ministry presented Israel with Sgt. First-Class Baumel’s jumpsuit and military boots in an Israeli flag-covered coffin in a ceremony later in the day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by senior defense officials, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

In another Channel 12 interview Wednesday night, Col. (res.) Yaakov, the IDF intelligence officer who led the two-man team that searched for Baumel and whose full name is not cleared for publication, offered a glimpse into the secretive, achingly frustrating, but ultimately successful intelligence effort that led to Wednesday’s triumph.

Though the military had been searching for the remains of Baumel, Feldman and Katz since they went missing, in the beginning of 2002, the EITAN unit established a new two-man team charged with locating the three soldiers.

The team spent the following years poring over a vast number of piecemeal data points, tiny shreds of intelligence gathered from diverse sources over the years, to try to narrow the search and find new leads that might shed light on the whereabouts of the soldiers.

“In the last year, the conditions came together, and we arrived at a complete picture, the kind that let us pinpoint precisely where the body was to be found,” Yaakov told Channel 12.

The intelligence effort was painfully slow.

“The information came from many places. We examined a huge amount of information at varying levels of credibility. It’s Sisyphean work, sorting out the correct information, zeroing in on the information that can be corroborated — until the picture clears and you find yourself directed to the specific place in the particular country where he is located,” Yaakov said.

Many disparate shreds of information pointed to Baumel’s burial at the site where he was found. “We checked other places as well, which slowly, eventually turned out to be incorrect,” the colonel said.

With that information in hand, Israel was able to direct the Russian military to the location where it believed Baumel to be buried.

A bloody battle, a difficult search

Baumel was serving as a staff sergeant in the 362nd Armored Battalion of the 399th Brigade, when on June 10, 1982, his unit was sent into the area of Sultan Yacoub to set up roadblocks. The next morning, they encountered the Syrian military’s 1st Armored Division, and a bloody battle ensued.

By the end of the fighting, 20 Israeli soldiers were killed and more than 30 injured. Baumel, Feldman and Katz were officially declared missing, and two other soldiers were taken captive and later returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange. Several of the unit’s tanks were also captured by Syrian forces and one was brought from Lebanon to Syria as a trophy. In 2016, it was returned to Israel by Russia.

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

According to the IDF, the remains of Baumel, Feldman and Katz were believed to be in the control of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Syria immediately following the battle.

In 1993, half of Baumel’s dogtag was passed along to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by PLO leader Yassar Arafat, who claimed to not know the exact location of his body.

“The other side knew what it was doing. It guarded these remains well for 37 years,” Yaakov said.

“But things change. People change. Some die, new people come on the job. I’m interested in who among these can bring me information. I’m not sure those parties that held [Baumel] at the beginning were those who held his remains at the end. A proper sorting of the information we could glean brought us slowly to the location of the body, and something someone said toward the end [of the search] turned out, after corroboration with other information, to be correct.”

The final location, he said, only became certain a few days ago, when Baumel’s remains were accurately identified in the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute.

The officer wouldn’t corroborate reports that the body was found in a cemetery at the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus — as reported in Arab media on Wednesday — noting that he wouldn’t give further details as long as the search for the other bodies continued.

“What made the difference was the opportunity, the good conditions that presented themselves to get to the place physically,” Yaakov said.

Syrian government forces walk down a destroyed street at the entrance of the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk on the southern outskirts of Damascus on May 21, 2018, after the Syrian army announced it was in complete control of the capital and its outskirts for the first time since 2012, following the ousting of the Islamic State group (AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA)

The Yarmouk camp was taken over by the Islamic State terror group in April 2015, remaining under its control for three years. In the spring of last year, the Syrian and Russian militaries regained control over it.

In September, the Russian defense ministry said one of its soldiers had been injured in the operation to find the remains of the missing IDF servicemen.

“Terrorists suddenly attacked the Russian servicemen involved in the operation. One Russian officer was wounded. Despite that, Russia was willing to carry on with the operation,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said at the time.

Yaacov said the site had been located a few years ago, but it took a great deal of time and effort to convince a sufficient portion of the intelligence community in order to mount an operation. His comments shed some light on the internal tensions inherent in such a difficult intelligence effort.

“There were other teams in the [IDF] Intelligence Directorate, and in the MIA location unit, who thought otherwise. But we insisted, and it turned out we were right,” he said

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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