The Return of Zecharia Baumel, Hy”d, After 37 Long Years

zachary baumel
The coffin carrying the remains of Zachary Baumel, Hy”d, arrives at Mount Herzel cemetery for the levayah, April 4. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After 37 years, Israel closed a circle last week when the body of one of its longtime MIAs, Zecharia Baumel, Hy”d, was located, positively identified and brought to kever Yisrael in Yerushalayim, the city where he had lived. It was the conclusion of a joint operation between Israel, the Russian army and the Syrians. Now they are continuing to search for other MIAs.
Hamodia’s military correspondent, who has covered the sad saga for the past 37 years both as a reporter and as a neighbor and friend of the Baumel family, presents the remarkable story of a father and son from Boro Park who moved to Eretz Yisrael and how the son ended up in the Sultan Yakoub battle.
This is the painful story of the long-awaited return of the martyr, Zecharia, still clad in the tzitzis he wore into battle, and the role of that garment in his positive identification.

zachary baumel
Zecharia Baumel, Hy”d

Their hearts were pounding the whole way. The small group of members of the Israeli Military Rabbinate, who flew a few weeks ago to Russia, had studied every detail about the missing Israeli soldiers. They knew that the Russians, aided by the Syrians, had found and exhumed a group of bodies, and now, it was up to them to try and identify which of them, if any, belonged to missing IDF soldiers from past battles.

Their work was relatively quick. When they opened the first set of remains, they were stunned. The body was dressed in the overalls of an Israeli tank operator, and had Hebrew letters on it. But what drew their attention and immediately revealed the secret were the soldier’s tzitzis, which were intact. In the pocket of the overalls were documents indicating that this was indeed Zecharia Baumel, Hy”d, one of the men they were looking for.

What the Military Rabbis Found

The emotions were intense. However, so was the disappointment. The other bodies that the Russians had managed to take out of Syria were those of Palestinian terrorists that had fought in battles against Israel. None was that of an Israeli soldier.

It now appears that Sergeant Zecharia Baumel fell immediately during the battle in Sultan Yakoub, Lebanon, 37 years ago. Throughout the decades since, all the intelligence and defense echelons in Israel made efforts to find the three missing soldiers. Only during the last two years did information begin to accrue, making it possible to find the remains hidden by their abductors.

After extensive deliberation, the IDF allowed it to be publicized that Baumel’s body had been found in Syria, and that those who had helped had been the Russian Army and Syrian soldiers. Who, what, where — that information was left for Russian spokespeople to reveal.

Indeed, sources in the Russian military leaked this week that the Russian forces came last month to the Al Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus and asked all the armed men to leave — including those supporting the Syrian army.

The Russians entered the camp’s cemetery with sophisticated equipment, and spent five days there, departing with several sacks.

“There was no deal or negotiations to return Baumel; he was returned as part of a military operation,” stated IDF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis. “We are not announcing where the body was found. The operation proved that we have never abandoned the Sultan Yakoub case. The families know that we will continue to make the effort to bring the boys home.”

Last week, the Russians gave Baumel’s overalls and shoes to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was visiting President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.

zecharia baumel
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attends a memorial service for Zecharia Baumel on April 4 in Moscow, (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)

The Final Operation

The operation did not require the physical presence of IDF soldiers in Syrian territory. This final operation was based on intelligence gathered in several previous missions and by the Israeli intelligence services over the years, and given to the Russians.

At the beginning of Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Moscow last week, he thanked Putin for all of Russia’s help in gaining back the Israeli soldier’s remains.

“When I spoke to you two years ago with a request to help us located our MIAs, you agreed immediately and unhesitatingly, and for that, I and the people of Israel thank you,” the prime minister said.

“Our people, together with the Syrians, located the missing soldier and will work to find additional MIAs,” Putin said.

A Father’s Quest

The story of Zecharia Baumel, Hy”d, is more than the tragic tale of a fighter who went out to battle and did not return. Even more powerful is the story of the soldier’s father, which tells us everything about his son, for so many years.

Zecharia’s father, Reb Yona Baumel, z”l — my friend and neighbor — passed away 10 years ago. “I hope,” he would tell everyone he met, “that my son Zecharia will return before I am summoned to the Heavenly Court.” It did not happen, and he departed this world. His son’s fate remained unknown for 10 more years, along with the fates of his fellow Sultan Yakoub MIAs: Yehudah Katz and Tzvi Feldman. Now we know what happened to Baumel. Where are the other two? There is still no answer to that question. Prime Minister Netanyahu has pledged that recovery efforts will continue around the clock.

Yona Baumel was 81 when he passed away. His heart had weakened badly the last two years of his life, but in the end, it was not his broken heart that took him, it was a terrible infection that raged throughout his body for two weeks and culminated in organ failure.

“Ten days before Reb Yona Baumel passed away,” his family relates, “his father sat down to prepare a list of things that he yet wanted to do in his life. Topping the list was, of course, his desire to bring home his son Zecharia and his friends.”

“As long as I have not done this, I have nothing to do in the next world,” he said. “I have been sent a test from Above, and with it, a mission. I withstood the test. Now I always want to provide results as part of my mission.”

To other bereaved parents whose sons participated in that battle and fell, Baumel would say with sincere anguish, “Be happy that you at least have a grave. I don’t have this either. I don’t know if my son is alive or dead. But I believe with emunah shaleimah, that I am being tested from Above and that my son is alive. When this challenge will end, he will suddenly appear, knock at the door, and be back.”

But Zecharia did not come back — at least not in his father’s lifetime.

Were the boys killed? Or were they injured and abducted and living somewhere in hiding, as Baumel and the other parents and relatives believed and continue to believe to this day.

Zecharia Baumel
L-R: Tzvi Feldman, Yehudah Katz, and Zecharia Baumel

From Brooklyn to the Gush

Zecharia Baumel — or Zach, as his parents and friends called him — was born and raised in Boro Park, along with his older brother and sister. Until the age of 10, when his parents decided to move to Eretz Yisrael, he learned in Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Brooklyn. After they moved, he attended Noam in Pardes Chana, and from there went on to Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. Along with his friends, he joined the hesder military track. He was sent to fight with the armored corps.

Yona Baumel always carried in his pocket the last letter he received from his son at the front. Zecharia wrote to his parents on the day that the battles in the north broke out: “Dear Abba and Ima, Don’t worry, everything is alright, baruch Hashem, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be coming home soon.”

The Battle of Sultan Yakoub

Nearly 37 years have passed since that dreadful night, June 11, 1982, the fifth day of the Lebanon War. That night, a major battle began near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yakoub. It was a difficult battle between the Israeli armored corps and a group of Syrian commandos that attacked it from all sides, in a topographically rough area.

The Syrians controlled all the higher ground surrounding Sultan Yakoub, and fired missiles down on the valley from the hilltops all around. They were joined by Palestinian terrorists belonging to Ahmad Jibril’s group. Tank after tank from the Israeli convoy went up in flames.

Twenty Israeli soldiers died in this battle and 31 more were injured, many seriously.

It was clear to the commanders that they had made a mistake by sending the armored division into what now looked like a terrible trap, but by the time they realized this at headquarters, it was too late. The tank operators were ordered to retreat. Then it was discovered that enemy missile fire had damaged many of the tanks at the front and the back of the convoy, and these tanks prevented the others from advancing or turning around to flee. The few that tried were damaged, and the men inside were killed or injured.

Zecharia Baumel
Site of the Battle of Sultan Yakoub, where Zecharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman went missing in the Lebanon War on June 11, 1982.

‘Disappeared’

When the battle ended at dawn, it was discovered that two Israeli tanks had “disappeared,” and with them six of the force’s soldiers: Zecharia Baumel, Chezi Shai, Aryeh Lieberman, Zohar Lifschitz, Tzvi Feldman and Yehudah Katz. Three years later, in a prisoner exchange deal with Syrian terrorists, Chezi Shai and Aryeh Lieberman were returned alive. Some time later, the body of their friend Zohar Lipschitz, Hy”d, was returned; he had perished in the battle.

That bloody night, Baumel, Feldman and Katz were fighting in the reserve unit of the Israeli armored corps. Chezi Shai, the commander, was the one who got the order to retreat; when he turned around in an effort to carry out that order, his tank was struck by a missile and began to burn. Chezi called to his friends to quickly abandon the tank before it exploded.

Indeed, according to the account of the battle that he gave after his return, the entire team in the tank managed to get out. However, this made them sitting ducks for Syrian fire — as the Syrians noticed them climbing out and turned their fire onto them. Several men were struck.

Aryeh Lieberman related upon his return that he saw some of the Israeli soldiers harmed by Syrian fire, and he also thought he saw Feldman get hit. But it is hard to confirm his report. Baumel was with them, he related, but when the Syrians and the terrorists got closer, Baumel disappeared; no one saw him after that point, and no real sign of life was ever received.

Shai fell into the hands of Ahmed Jibril’s terrorists, and Lieberman was caught and handed over to Syrian captivity. Both of them were returned to Israel after 36 months.

As for the last three MIAs, who were not returned, the Syrians and the terrorists declared: “We have no idea what happened to them.”

How does all that fit in with the fact that, two days later, the Syrians held a victory parade in the streets of Damascus, led by the very tank that Baumel and his comrades had been in? Damascus evaded and continues to evade the question. Their answer — which has not changed to this day — is: “We don’t know anything.”

But that “ignorance” did not prevent the Syrians from aiding the Russians these past two years when they asked for Syrian help based on solid intelligence they had received from Israel.

Since the battle, until two years ago, not much has changed regarding Israel’s knowledge of what happened to the young men. After the Oslo accords were signed, there was a short-lived, dim ray of light, when Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat presented half of the ID disk of missing soldier Zechariah Baumel. There was hope that this meant the PA leader knew something valuable and wanted something in exchange for it. But nothing happened after that.

Zecharia Baumel
IDF tanks in Lebanon
during the
1982 war. (AP)

A Flawed — And Unnecessary? — Operation

The IDF investigated the Sultan Yakoub battle several times, with different committees and teams, and the conclusions of all indicated serious flaws in the way the force was sent and operated, and everything that happened after the encounter with the Syrians and the terrorists. None of the investigators were able to figure out how Israeli officers sent a small tank brigade into such a huge trap of two Syrian armored brigades and commando units, how the small Israeli unit maneuvered in this isolated area that was controlled on all sides — including from surrounding hilltops — by enemy forces.

Did the IDF not know about the many Syrian forces located at that spot? They knew full well. Aerial photos had been taken an hour before the armored soldiers were given the order to move forward.

But today we also know that this information did not reach the force commander.

In general, was the battle necessary? Israel already knew that within a few hours, a ceasefire with the Syrians was supposed to take effect. Nevertheless, someone decided to send the Israeli force forward to capture the Damascus-Beirut road, after it was already decided by the higher command that the IDF didn’t even need to reach this road.

Even more disquieting: For hours after the battle ended, and when the ceasefire was indeed declared, there were a large number of Israeli forces in the area. Aerial and ground photographs show that the two Israeli tanks were still there. But in some unexplained mistake, the Israelis thought that the tanks were … Syrian, and made no effort to reach them. That is even after they saw the Syrians bringing vehicles and towing the two tanks away from the scene.

Were the soldiers inside the tanks? It is not known. But there is no doubt that if the tanks were in IDF hands, it would have been possible to know more about what had happened to the soldiers. This is even more the case if the forces would have moved into the area and immediately begun to search out what had happened to the MIAs from the night before.

In the battle area in Lebanon at the time was a young officer named Major Avigdor Klein. He kept all that he saw and heard to himself for many years afterward. Over time he advanced in rank, and only after 25 years and his retirement from the army, and after serving as a chief armored corps officer in the IDF, did Brig.-Gen. Avigdor Klein speak out. Something had been bothering him all along, and by the time he did speak, he said it clearly and sharply. “At the battle of Sultan Yakoub, our weakness was fully exposed in its many facets,” he stated.

Zecharia Baumel
An Israeli operation against a PLO position on the Lebanese coast.

Brig.-Gen. Klein blames the IDF, saying that they could have collected much more intelligence on the missing soldiers very close to the time of the actual abduction, but they didn’t do so. “We had many cameras in different directions in that area, both on the ground and in the air. I have no doubt that a more comprehensive analysis, with persistent interrogation of the Syrian POWs and terrorists that were caught in the region, and questioning of the residents living in the area, would have provided answers to many questions that remain unanswered to this day,” Klein said.

His words are underscored by the fact that events that happened right after the abduction were documented on IDF and defense-establishment cameras, and the findings of those images would have helped dispel some of the fog about the abductees and their fates. “All the actions were documented by Israeli air force photographs. Even if, let’s say, during the chaos of the fighting, unexpected and tragic things happen and it’s hard to get a picture of the situation as it is happening, the subsequent, most basic investigation of the people and soldiers who were in the area and even ‘dealt with’ the tanks would have led to even partial, but significant, results that would shed light on the mystery of the MIAs.”

The former officer revealed that the IDF viewed and documented the towing of the MIAs’ tank and that it was loaded onto a Syrian vehicle. He is convinced that all the information relating to the MIAs and what happened to them was in Damascus, had they only wanted to shed light on it all.

“There is apparently a Syrian interest to weaken Israeli society by portraying its governments as hapless and having no principles on which it is not willing to compromise. A state that wants to defend its sovereignty needs to do so in a tangible and substantial way. Its army has to fight for its life, with determination and uncompromising strength. Soldiers will do so if, among other things, they know that the command for which they are fighting does not ‘zigzag’ or get confused when it is required to demand that its missing be returned. We still haven’t learned the price of weakness and hesitation.”

In the end, Klein raises another important and interesting claim: “If I’m not mistaken, during and after the battle at Sultan Yakoub, the Syrian Mechanized Brigade was stationed in the area. The IDF then, as in the future in similar cases, should have taken an offensive stance against this unit, without backing down. It should have been a process that would ‘reap’ enemy captives that could then be used as a motivation for a prisoner exchange — that the enemy would be clearly interested in. Until that didn’t happen, the IDF should not have stopped trying to reach the desired goal. Regrettably, we didn’t understand it then, as we chose to ignore it in recent wars as well. Correct me if I’m wrong: How many Hezbollah captives do we have today? We don’t. The story repeats itself.”

Yona Baumel’s Quest for Answers

The IDF wanted to declare Katz, Feldman and Baumel as dead — fallen in battle, whose burial places were not known. Yona Baumel and the other families fought valiantly against the IDF decision; they went to great lengths to prevent this from happening.

One day, I publicized the IDF’s intentions in the newspaper. Yona Baumel, who read every iota of information that was published on the subject, quickly called me; he was very angry: “It is inconceivable that a chareidi newspaper should join the army’s misguided intent to declare our boys fallen soldiers. It’s against halachah. It’s against all the intelligence information that we have. Stop writing about it.”

I acceded, and he appreciated that. From time to time, he would update me on what he perceived as “progress in our hopes.” He traveled extensively, searching for clues. Sometimes, it appeared to him that the solution was at hand. And his disappointment was acute and bitter when he learned that he had been deceived and told nonsense.

Baumel was furious at Ariel Sharon, prime minister at the time, who helped establish a foundation with a $10 million reward for anyone who would bring information about the fate of missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad. In the letter he wrote to Sharon, he complained: “It’s a shame and an embarrassment to a state that discriminates between blood. I have been searching for my son for twenty years; I’m an old man and I want to see the end of this story at the end of my life. You declared a prize of $10 million for information about Ron Arad. Why didn’t you establish a foundation for information about the fate of our children? You are discriminating between the blood of one soldier and the blood of another.” His motto was that “in Israel there is a hierarchy of the fallen.”

He came out strongly against the army commanders for not supporting him and his desire to establish a foundation that would award a generous prize for anyone providing information on Yehudah Katz, Tzvi Feldman and his own son. “Those military people,” he once said, “place a higher value on the life of a pilot than those who fought on the ground.”

Baumel caught government officials in a lie. “I’m angry that they lied and told me that the investment on behalf of Arad was private family money, and then later admitted that it was government money.”

Zecharia Baumel
Israeli troops patrolling
South Lebanon.

A Special Feeling for Eretz Yisrael

“I feel special emotions for Eretz Yisrael and the army, but I have harsh feelings in my heart about the military people and statesmen who tried throughout the years to whitewash the story of our children and claim that they are dead and that all the efforts we are investing are for naught,” Baumel said. “They gave us mistaken information that was not corroborated. They led us astray. They spoke to us in three voices — we heard one voice during negotiations, another in the media, and the third voice was the way they spoke to the families.”

At every opportunity, Yona Baumel would link the continued absences of his son and his friends to the absence of Gilad Shalit, who was still abducted at the time. “I hope and pray that what happened to us won’t happen to the Shalit family,” he said. At one point, Baumel declared, “If we would have claimed decades ago that the government of Israel had deceived us, no one would have believed it. Now that everyone sees what is being done to the Shalit family, you can certainly understand what I am talking about.”

Baumel claimed that the “whole treatment of the state regarding the boys was and still is not sufficient and not sensitive. They didn’t listen to us; they provided us with inaccurate information, deceived us and led us astray. That is what they are doing to the Shalit family as well. I spoke to them. I encouraged them. But I also told them that they should learn our lesson and not give up. They should demand what is coming to them, the right and urgent way to do things. We must not give up. We must not allow foot-dragging.”

Baumel invested all of his own resources into the battle for his son and his friends. He was helped by certain private people to the extent that they were able, but he felt that he did not receive from the State what they should have invested in the search. He also activated a private network of volunteers who followed every word that was publicized on the matter in the Arab world.

I often saw Reb Yona walking the streets of the Katamon neighborhood, filled with hope. But as the years passed, he grew clearly worried — and there was even despair in his eyes.

Yona often spoke about the secret he had from his son and his friends, and how sure he was that it was a good clue that would lead to finding the soldiers — alive. But the security entities in Israel, who knew what was behind the story, had checked into it and reached the conclusion that there was nothing new there, and nothing that would lead them to new findings.

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The final resting place of Zecharia Baumel, the Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Yerushalayim. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Help From Abroad

Zecharia Baumel had a classmate from when he still lived in Brooklyn, one Stuart Ditchek. Ditchek became a pediatrician, and in the course of his work, he was in contact with the Syrians. When he learned that his classmate was missing, he offered to Yona Baumel to visit Syria and try to clarify what happened.

His reports from the first trip encouraged Yona very much. But the army rejected it all out of hand.

Baumel himself used the fact that he was an American citizen in order to travel to Syria, risking his life in the process. He heard what the Dr. Ditchek had heard from the people there, and was even more encouraged. He made efforts to persuade the IDF and the defense establishment that there was hope in the findings, but they were not convinced — yet again.

Yona Baumel was angry. He brought proof of the excellent contacts between and Syrian officials. “I am keeping to myself the information that he got for us. But it is positive information. I’m surprised at the army. The information that we both brought proves that the boys are alive,” he said, “but the army is ignoring us and refuses to accept it.”

In closed conversation, Baumel related that according to the information he had received, which he considered reliable, Zecharia “was seen alive in Syria until a few years ago. I know clearly that he lived in Syria long after the war in Lebanon. I also know that he was not healthy there. This is information that came from several sources. If he is still alive there, or dead, I don’t know, but I have no doubt that he was saved during the war, and was transferred to Syria and was there,” Yona Baumel said again and again.

Yona Baumel built a lot on the Syrian mediator, Ibrahim Sliman, who negotiated with Israel regarding the missing soldiers.

Ibrahim Sliman is a Syrian who lived most of his life in America, but maintained close ties with the government leaders in Damascus and visited Syria often. He was an Alawite, from the samPe sect as former President Hafez al-Assad, and was close to him. At some points, he was in charge of dealing with the families of the Syrian representatives who served as envoys to the United States.

At the beginning of 1990, Sliman surprised some of his Israeli acquaintances, including businessman Yaakov Nimrodi, when he told them he had received permission from the higher-ups in Damascus to negotiate over the missing soldiers. They directed him to the Israeli embassy in Washington, where he suggested himself as a mediator between the two sides. Indeed, for about five years, he shuttled between Damascus and Yerushalayim. Sliman was even invited to deliver testimony to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about his contacts and his assessments, and he sounded optimistic.

“I met Sliman many times,” Baumel related, “and he told me that based on his best sources in the capital of Syria, my son was alive, and that Ron Arad is with him. That was in 1995. He told me also that Zecharia and his two friends were captured by Lebanese activists who were loyal to Syria.” Yona Baumel was optimistic not only based on this report. “For years, I received other reports about Zecharia, all of which were positive and related that the boys were alive.”

Israeli intelligence officials met with Sliman and knew him well enough to cast doubt on the true nature of his connections to the Syrian ruling echelons. He primarily lost their trust when, during one of the conversations, he said that he was basing his information on a Syrian intelligence officer named Adnan Tira, who was known by Israel as unreliable, to put it mildly.

The Israeli intelligence officials spoke to Yona Baumel and gently tried to help him realize that he was building castles in the air. Baumel had a hard time accepting what they said, but he agreed with them that all that he had were verbal sources, not tangible proof with pictures, tapes or other substantial evidence.
Baumel was a very practical person and did not only rely on Sliman. When he found out that the Stasi — the spy service of former East Germany — had good ties, he contacted the organization. They agreed to make some inquiries among their Syrian counterparts, and according to Baumel, the information he received was similar to what Sliman had given him. (One can’t help but wonder if the Arabs were deliberately and sadistically feeding lies to the family, both to prolong their agony as well as to turn them against the government.)

In Yona Baumel’s travels to search out any good connection that someone had with the Syrians, he reached a certain Middle Eastern country, where Israelis do not travel, and met a Maronic cleric who was known for his close ties to the Syrians. Baumel spoke to the man’s conscience, and he agreed to travel to Damascus to probe the matter.

When he returned, Baumel and his wife met the man, and he presented them with certain questions about their son that only Yona and his wife could possibly know about. “I have information that even the Israeli defense establishment doesn’t have,” Baumel would often say. It was information that encouraged him, personally, but obviously, did not lead to any breakthrough.

All His Life Channeled Into One Mission

Baumel’s granddaughter, Shiffy Haberman, says that her grandfather’s condition began to deteriorate when he realized that time was passing and he was not likely to know what had befallen his son. At the same time, she stresses: “Saba was a man of remarkable faith whose bitachon in Hakadosh Baruch Hu is what kept him going on this earth, along with the huge hope that coursed through him that he would yet merit to see Zecharia.”

The granddaughter reveals that a few hours before his passing, when he was already bedridden, and he saw that his condition was poor, he tried to sit up, and requested, “Dress me in a white shirt.” The family tried to persuade him that this would be too difficult. But he insisted: “I want to be dressed for Shabbos at this time,” he said. Then he also put on the expression reserved for conversations with senior officials and dignitaries who came to pressure him to be more flexible and to agree to declare Zecharia a fallen soldier, an expression that radiated the intensity of his convictions. Haberman says the family conceded and with great effort, dressed him in his Shabbos clothes. “He left this world wearing them.”

He went without knowing that his beloved son would only be found a decade later, and that Zecharia was no longer alive.