Thirty seven years ago, in the summer of 1982, Israel went to war against the PLO in Lebanon in what was known as Operation Peace for Galilee (Milchemet Shlom Hagalil) and later known as the First Lebanon War.

The Battle of Sultan Yacoub

One of the fiercest battles in that war was the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, in which a tank unit fell victim to a Syrian ambush. On the 30th anniversary of that battle I wrote a post commemorating the three IDF soldiers who went missing in action in that battle:

Elli Fischer in the Times of Israel (h/t Love of the Land) brings us their stories and keeps their memory alive:

Exactly 30 years ago, during the night between the 10th and 11th of June, 1982 (the 20th of Sivan – a date commemorating other historical Jewish tragedies), the IDF fought Syrian forces in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Considered one of Israel’s worst failures in the First Lebanon War, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed and another three went missing. Eyewitnesses testified that three Israeli soldiers were paraded through Damascus several days after the battle, but the trail begins to run cold after that, although there were indications in 1993, 2000, and possibly even 2005 that at least some of the missing Israeli soldiers were still alive. Perhaps, as the Syrian regime – long suspected of holding the soldiers – continues to crumble, we will finally get some definitive answers.

3 MIA’s from Sultan Yacoub battle in Lebanon

It has been 30 years, or 10,958 days, that their families – two of the three, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, were/are children of Holocaust survivors – have been in the dark about the fate of their sons and brothers. Brooklyn-born Zachary Baumel’s father passed away in 2009, having dedicated the last 27 years of his life to bringing his son home by cultivating contacts in enemy states, suing governments, and organizing campaigns, but ultimately suffering immense frustration.

The return of Zachary Baumel’s body

Last week, on the 3rd April, we were greeted with the enormously moving news that the body of Zachary Baumel has been found, brought to Israel and identified!

A special team of the IDF headed by the head of the manpower division, Major General Moti Almoz, informed the Baumel family Wednesday that the body of their loved one, Sergeant Zachary Baumel, who has been missing since the battle of Sultan Yaqub in the summer of 1982, was found, brought to Israel and identified.

Sergeant Baumel was clearly identified at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, as well as by the Chief Military Rabbi, Brigadier General Eyal Krim.

The IDF Spokesperson stated that “the IDF is committed to continuing efforts to locate [other MIAs from the Battle of Sultan Yaqub] Sergeant Major Yehuda Katz, Sergeant Tzvika Feldman and all the missing IDF soldiers whose burial place is unknown. The Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, IDF commanders and soldiers, embrace all the families, including families Baumel, Feldman and Katz in these complex moments.”

That night it was announced that the funeral of Zachary Baumel would take place on Thursday 4th April at Har Herzl Military Cemetery at 7 pm.

Watch the very moving video in the tweet below:

Operation Bittersweet Song: Locating and recovering the body

The story of the recovery of Zachary’s body reads like international spy fiction involving the Russians and Syrian insurgents – and even with the few details available, we will probably never know the full truth.  The NY Times reports:

Israel’s military and intelligence services never stopped searching for him, and two others who remain missing. One key breakthrough came in 1993, during the Oslo peace talks, when half of an identification tag belonging to Sergeant Baumel was delivered by Yasir Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, to an emissary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In 2016, Russia returned to Israel, at Mr. Netanyahu’s request, a tank that had been seized in the Sultan Yakoub battle, sent by Syria to Moscow and kept on display at the armored corps museum there.

Last year, a Syrian-based Palestinian official told The Associated Press that insurgents had found the remains of three Israeli soldiers, including Sergeant Baumel, in a cemetery in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, the Syrian capital. And in the fall, Russia said its soldiers had come under fire while helping Israel search graves in Syrian territory controlled by Islamic State forces.

Eventually, Israel concluded that Palestinians in Syria were holding the other missing at the direction of the P.L.O., which the Israeli army said undertook a “protracted effort of concealment and deception” that impeded the search for years.

In a moving piece, Aish.com adds:

Operation Bittersweet Song began in top secret two years ago after the families of the missing soldiers urged the IDF to seize the opportunity of Russia’s presence in war-torn Syria and warming Russian-Israeli relations to find any additional information about their sons’ whereabouts. The request was made and the Russian’s agreed to assist, leading to one of the most impressive operations of its kind.

Russian soldiers were directed to an area of a cemetery in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria where Israeli intelligence strongly believed Baumel had been buried. At times under fire, Russian forces excavated Baumel’s body and arranged its transfer to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who flew to Russia to personally thank Vladimir Putin for Russia’s help in bringing Zachary Baumel home, described the culmination of the classified two year operation “one of the most moving moments” in all his years as prime minister,” telling the Russian president about Zachary’s father Yona Baumel who had traveled the world in order to locate any piece of new information. “I remember well his pain when he spoke about his son, about his yearning, about his longing. Many times Yona told me with tears in his eyes that he had one prayer: to find Zachary before he himself passed away.” Netanyahu added, “To our sorrow, Yona passed away about a decade ago and is not with us today at this wrenching moment.”

‘We identified Baumel by the Hebrew on his IDF overalls’

After being brought to Israel, forensics experts said they were overcome with emotion at when making a formal identification. “I’ll never forget the moment we saw the remains,” said Colonel A at the Abu Kabir Institute in Tel Aviv. “We could immediately determine that the overalls belonged to the IDF’s Armored Corps. We looked at the writing on the back in Hebrew, which was amazingly preserved.”

Along with remains of his army overalls, the tzitzit (Jewish ritual garment) Baumel was wearing when he was killed also arrived in Israel. Colonal A added, “It was an emotional moment, we couldn’t help but cry, we knew that after 37 years, we finally had the remains.”

The most amazing fact in this whole astonishing recovery is the warm relationship between Israel and Russia, or maybe even more pertinently, the close personal relationship between Netanyahu and Putin. Putin didn’t attempt to cover up Russia’s part in the campaign, he was in fact proud of it. He risked Russian soldiers’ lives to recover Baumel’s body! When you consider that Russia was not so long ago a fierce adversary of Israel, this is almost miraculous.

Despite the foreign reports of Russian involvement in the rescue, Israel itself is keeping the details to itself:

The operation to return Baumel’s remains, led by Colonel A. of the intelligence branch, was planned in recent months and reached its height a week ago, when the troops who were tasked with bringing his body back were given a green light to proceed.

“There was no deal and no negotiations to return Baumel. He was returned in a military operation,” said IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manlis.

“We are not saying where his body was found. The operation proves that we never abandoned the Sultan Yacoub case. The families know that we will continue to make every effort to bring their sons home.”

According to Saudi-owned Arabic news channel, Al Arabiya, Russia – which has a strong military presence in Syria – helped to recover the body.

Earlier this week, as soon as the identity of the fallen soldier was confirmed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin and requested a meeting to personally thank him and discuss other issues related to Syria that remained open from their previous encounter.

The families of the other who soldiers who have been missing since Sultan Yacoub, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, were informed that Baumel’s remains had been located.

The relatives of IDF navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared during a mission over Lebanon in 1986, and the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who have been missing in Gaza since the 2014 war with Hamas, were also told that Baumel’s remains had been returned.

The funeral

Despite the relief of knowing that Zachary Baumel will finally be brought to a proper Jewish burial in Israel, this must be very difficult news for the families of the other MIAs whose whereabouts are still unknown. The President and Prime Minister expressed the feelings of all of us:

President Reuven Rivlin welcomed the news of the return of Baumel’s body and praised the the security forces who were involved in the operation.

“We have received the moving and painful news that the body of First Sergeant Zachary Baumel has been brought home to Israel. Thirty-seven unbearable years of painful waiting, of questions and doubts have come to an end thanks to the determined and ceaseless work of the IDF and Israel’s intelligence community,” Rivlin said in a statement.

“On this difficult, moving and sad day, our thoughts are with the Baumel family, crying and hurting with them as they bring their son Zachary to eternal rest in our country, our land,” he added. “I thank the IDF and the whole Israeli intelligence community for their commitment, bravery and action, day and night, to bring our soldiers and those who fell defending the country and the people, home.

“We will not cease until all our soldiers have returned home – First Sergeant Yehuda Katz, First Sergeant Zvika Feldman and all those missing in action and whose place of burial is not known. Our commitment to our soldiers has always been, and will always be, a shining light. We go to battle together, and together we return from it,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a televised statement, in which he called the mission to retrieve Baumel’s remains the essence of the Israeli spirit.

“This is one of the most moving moments of all my years as prime minister of Israel,” he said. “Zachary’s bones, which were brought to Israel, were identified with certainty. Next to them were his overalls and his tzitzit (religious garment won by observant Jewish men),” he added.

“The operation to return him to Israel is the ultimate expression of the mutual responsibility and comradeship that characterize us as a nation, as an army and as a country.”

Here are some tweets that echo these emotional sentiments:

Let us pray and hope that the other Israeli MIAs, whether in Lebanon, Syria or Gaza, will be found and brought to Israel speedily in order to bring closure to their families and to the entire nation.

Meanwhile, a huge kol hakavod to the IDF for this amazing, courageous rescue operation.