Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said his country’s military, with Syrian assistance, retrieved the remains of Israeli tank commander Zachary Baumel, allowing them to be returned to the Jewish state nearly 37 years after he went missing in the First Lebanon War’s Battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982.
“Russian Army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military,” Putin said, during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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.
Netanyahu flew to Moscow early Thursday to meet the Russian leader for discussions on Syria and Iran.
During the press conference, Netanyahu thanked Putin, saying Russian soldiers had “risked their lives” in order to bring back the remains, confirming the key role Moscow played in the search effort for the remains not only of Baumel but also of two other IDF soldiers missing since the same battle. Until then, Israeli officials were only permitted to say that a “third country” had assisted in the effort, without specifying which.
“Two years ago, I asked you to help us find the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers, and you responded in the affirmative. I want to thank you, my friend, for what you have done,” Netanyahu told Putin.
The prime minister added that Baumel’s family, whom he met with Wednesday night before departing for Moscow, had asked him to pass along their appreciation for the contribution of the Russian military as well.
“When I told them about your decision and the fact that Russian soldiers performed the activities, sometimes while putting themselves at risk, their jaws dropped, and they asked me to express their deep gratitude, which is gratitude from all citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
The Russian president confirmed that the effort to find the remains “was difficult for the special forces.”
In September, the Russian defense ministry said one of its soldiers had been injured in the operation.
“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.
After a complex and secret operation, dubbed “Bittersweet Song,” Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel on an El Al plane via an unnamed third country earlier this week, a military spokesman said Wednesday.
Baumel’s funeral was scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
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.
Netanyahu told a press conference on 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 also returned to Israel by Russia.
Tank commander Baumel, a Brooklyn-born 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 was also 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.