By Marcy Oster
(JTA) – The body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, an immigrant from the United States who went missing in Lebanon some 37 years ago, was returned to Israel.
Baumel disappeared on June 10, 1982, in a battle at the beginning of the Lebanon War along with two other Israeli soldiers, Sgt. Yehuda Katz and Sgt. Tzvika Feldman. Israel has negotiated for the repatriation of their bodies for decades. Baumel’s body was transferred to an El Al plane via an unnamed third country in an operation by Israeli intelligence agencies, according to the IDF. It was not repatriated as part of a deal with any other country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement broadcast live in Israel said that in addition to recovering Baumel’s remains, his tzitzit also was recovered.
“He was considered missing for 37 years,” Netanyahu said. “For all those years, the State of Israel had invested immense resources to resolve the riddle of his fate. …The operation to bring Zachary Baumel back to Israel is a supreme expression of the mutual guarantee and the soldierly brotherhood that characterizes us as a people, an army and a state. It is the redemption of a moral debt to the fallen IDF soldiers and to their families.”
The bodies of all three soldiers were believed to be held by Palestinian organizations in Syria. The Israeli media reported that Russia was involved in the retrieval of the remains.
IDF spokesman Ronen Manlis said that two IDF chiefs of staff and the last two military intelligence heads were involved in the repatriation, as well as officials from military intelligence, research and operations, the Israel Security Agency and the Mossad.
Israeli ethicist Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a tank commander during the Lebanon War who helped evacuate the wounded from the Battle of Sultan Jacoub, expressed gratitude for the repatriation of Baumel’s remains.
“Ever since that horrific battle at Sultan Yacoub, we always stressed that as long as there was even a faint possibility to bring our lost brothers home – whether alive or not – we had a moral and human responsibility to do so,” he said.
Baumel moved to Israel with his parents and siblings from Brooklyn in 1970. He attended a hesder yeshiva, which combines religious study with army service.
His father, Yona, died in May 2009 at the age of 81. He believed until his death that his son was still alive, and had met with numerous world leaders and interviewed hundreds of witnesses during his search for information about his son and the two soldiers who disappeared with him, according to reports.
The last postcard Zachary Baumel sent to his family before going missing in Lebanon read, “Don’t worry, everything is OK, but it looks like I won’t be home for a while.”