Seeking the fate of three missing soldiers 30 years later
JERUSALEM — Soon after the war in Lebanon began in June 1982, Avigdor Chen’s tank unit fell into a trap. Artillery rained from high ground occupied by the Syrians near the village of Sultan Yacoub. The battle continued all night.
When dawn broke, Chen saw a struck Israeli tank some 100 yards away. With smoke billowing from it, the tank rolled downhill. Chen ran toward the now-stopped tank. He smelled burning human flesh and looked inside. The commander, Zohar Lipschitz, was dead. Chen ventured no further into the tank, knowing that another shell could follow imminently. Chen later learned that Yehuda Katz was also inside the tank.
Katz, then 25; Zachary Baumel, 21, with whom Chen had been friends since basic training; and a third soldier, Zvi Feldman, 22, have been missing ever since that battle, which took place 30 years ago, on June 11. Not a single letter, photograph, video clip or third-party message from them has reached the outside world, nor has any proof of their deaths emerged.
“I really feel strongly that there may be a chance that some of these guys are still alive and that there’s still hope,” Chen said. “People in Vietnam went missing for so many years and they turned up.”
But, he added, “they’re on the radar much less than they used to be. There’s not even a blurb about them.”
With Gilad Schalit’s release last October from more than five years in Hamas captivity in Gaza, Israeli MiAs fell from public consciousness. Long before Schalit’s release, Baumel, Katz and Feldman were all but forgotten, unreported in negotiations over prisoner exchanges. No leftover, Schalit-era demonstrations are being recycled or protest tents filled to demand the trio’s freedom or proof of their fate.
The Israeli media recently began marking the Lebanon War’s 30th anniversary. In one radio interview, a brigade commander mentioned the missing trio in passing – but not by name.
The silence is striking for a country that values memory so highly and takes such pride in its soldiers. Within days of the 2006 seizing of Schalit by Hamas and the kidnapping of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by Hezbollah, posters and placards proclaiming: “Return Our Sons to Their Borders” adorned Israel’s lampposts. Two summers later, the country fairly stopped in its tracks to watch television coverage of the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev being repatriated at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing in a prisoner swap.
The longer Schalit remained in captivity, the more intense became the public relations campaign by Israelis to press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure his release.
Meanwhile, Ron Arad, held prisoner since bailing out from his shot-down combat fighter over Lebanon in 1986, remains a household name.
“That was a bit telling: that people didn’t put these three soldiers in the same place they put Ron Arad, Schalit and [Goldwasser and Regev],” Arieh O’Sullivan, a veteran writer on Israeli military affairs, remarked about the radio interview. “These three never had a public outcry to get them back because the military never had a public outcry to get them back.”
“They’ve been forgotten,” said Efraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “They disappeared, as if the ground swallowed them up.”
Explanations abound for the societal distinctions: the public presumed the three soldiers dead almost from their moment of capture; the 2009 death of Baumel’s father, Yona, sapped the movement of its most vocal advocate; the three MiAs were single, while Arad’s wife and baby daughter lent powerful poignancy to everyone’s nightmare of a soldier disappearing; people and their causes move on.
The Israel Defence Forces officially classifies Baumel, Feldman and Katz as “missing.” The soldiers’ parents have fought periodic IDF initiatives to declare the men dead without producing proof of their fate. Thirty years later, Baumel’s mother, Miriam, retains hope.
She and her late husband tirelessly knocked on every door to obtain Zachary Baumel’s freedom. They met Israeli government leaders, IDF brass, foreign officials, Red Cross representatives, Diaspora Jewish community members, journalists – anyone who might help obtain proof of their son’s fate. They lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that then-president Bill Clinton signed into law in 1999, calling on the State Department to press Arab governments to provide information on the three Israeli MiAs.
Later this month, Miriam Baumel will travel to England to seek out a British diplomat who reportedly witnessed the parading of three kidnapped Israeli soldiers – perhaps her son, Katz and Feldman – through Damascus streets just hours after their capture. She will address Jewish audiences in London and Manchester to rally support.