By Aryeh Savir
Sergeant 1st Class Zachary Baumel, who went missing during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub during the First Lebanon War, has finally been recovered and returned to Israel, 37 after his disappearance.
In 1982, Baumel, an IDF tank commander, went missing in action and his whereabouts have been unknown since. However, the IDF on April 3 announced dramatically that it had finally brought Baumel, a fallen soldier, back home to Israel for a proper burial, after a complex and prolonged military operation.
For decades the Israeli intelligence community and the MIA Allocation Team have undertaken various intelligence, research and operational efforts in order to locate and recover the remains of those who are MIA.
The IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate initiated Operation Bittersweet Song, and following a month’s long process which was completed a few days ago, Baumel’s body was located, identified and recovered.
Brooklyn-born, Zachary immigrated to Israel from the US. He learned at a yeshiva for IDF soldiers and joined the Armored Corps.
Baumel and four of his comrades went missing in the infamous Battle of Sultan Yacoub. On the night of June 10, 1982, the IDF’s 362nd Armored Battalion entered the Beqaa Valley in the eastern region in Lebanon. The Israeli battalion found itself facing the Syrian 1st Armored Division alongside forces from Palestinian terrorist organizations.
At dawn on June 11, the IDF battalion began to exchange fire with the enemy. Later that morning, at around 9 a.m., the IDF battalion withdrew and relocated southward in order to reconnect with the rest of the IDF troops in Jabal Arba and Talat Abu-Amar. While most of the battalion moved quickly, eight IDF tanks remained behind and were captured by the Syrian Armed Forces and the Palestinian terror organizations.
By the end of the battle, 20 IDF soldiers had been killed in action, an additional 30 were wounded, and five soldiers were captured and subsequently were announced MIA.
Two of the five captured soldiers were returned in June, 1984 and May 1985.
The three other soldiers who went MIA were Sergeant First Class Yehuda Katz, Sergeant First Class Tzvi Feldman, and Baumel.
Katz and Feldman’s whereabouts are still unknown.
“The IDF will continue to look for all of those who are MIA and hopes to return its soldiers home,” the military stated.
President Reuven Rivlin stated that “we have received the moving and painful news” of Baumel’s return.
“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,” he said.
“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.
He thanked 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.”
Israel “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 underscored.
‘Supreme expression of the mutual guarantee’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Baumel’s return was “one of the most moving moments in all my years as Prime Minister of Israel.”
He revealed that Baumel’s tank jump-suit and his tzitzit were found with his bones.
He recalled Zachary’s father Yonah and “his pain when he spoke about his son, about his yearning, about his longing. He traveled the world in order to locate any piece of information about his missing son.
“Many times Yonah told me with tears in his eyes that he had one prayer — to find Zachary before he himself passed away. To our sorrow, Yonah passed away about a decade ago and is not with us today at this wrenching moment,” Netanyahu said.
“In his last words to his parents, which he wrote on a postcard before the battle, at Sultan Yacoub, Zachary wrote:
“‘Don’t worry, everything is okay but it looks like I won’t be home for a while.’ It took the State of Israel 37 years to bring him back home,” he said.
The Israeli premier lauded the operation to bring Baumel back to Israel as “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.”
He further promised that Israel will continue to invest every effort in order to also bring back home our other missing and fallen. We will not cease from this sacred mission.
“Bringing of a fallen IDF soldier to a Jewish burial is always a wound in heart of the family and of the people, but in this case, the pain of bereavement is accompanied by the removal of doubt. Today we remove the uncertainty that surrounded Zachary’s fate. Today we close the circle,” Netanyahu concluded.