Floundering Syrian regime opens window of opportunity to locate Israeli MIAs
While the family of Majdi Halabi can put an end to years of uncertainty, the fate of other Israeli MIAs is still unknown.
The discovery of the body of missing Israel Defense Forces soldier Majdi Halabi ends seven years of painful uncertainty for his family. The fact that his body was found on Mount Carmel, not far from where he lived and from the place he was last seen, seems to confirm what the IDF’s Unit for Locating Missing Soldiers and the police had suspected almost from the start: that Halabi died very shortly after he disappeared.
The circumstances of his death have yet to be determined. The police and the army are not volunteering any details about the progress of the investigation since the body was found. Naturally the possibility he was murdered will be investigated, but even if that is confirmed, it would be hard to know whether the motive was criminal or ideological.
In many instances in the past, soldiers who disappeared en route to their bases were murdered by terror groups while hitchhiking. It’s possible that the evidence in the area where the remains were found will help investigators resolve what happened to Halabi and, if he was murdered, help them find the people responsible.
The finding of a soldier’s body seven years after he disappeared testifies to the great efforts made by the defense establishment and the police to locate missing soldiers. It’s a disproportionate effort in terms of time, resources and the personal commitment of those who do this work. This stems from the high status that most Israelis still accord to serving in the regular army, and from the concern we all have for the missing soldiers’ families.
The army understands two things, learned the hard way over the years: That it needs to closely accompany and be attentive to the family of the missing soldier from the moment he’s reported missing, and that it must launch an immediate effort to collect intelligence that could lead to resolving the mystery or (in the case of a kidnapping), making an effort to formulate a plan – or a deal – to get the soldier back.
The latter issue was relevant to Gilad Shalit, who was returned from Hamas captivity a year ago this week, but not to Halabi, of course. But the continuous search for Halabi is the result of past traumas, first and foremost losing the intelligence trail of missing navigator Ron Arad, after Israeli officials decided not to make a quick deal with his captors in Lebanon two years after he was shot down in 1986.
After long years of suffering, Halabi’s family will finally be able to bury him on Friday. But this is a good time to remember that along with Ron Arad, there are other missing soldiers whose fates were never resolved: the three reserve soldiers who went missing in the battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon in 1982 – Zvi Feldman, Zecharia Baumel, and Yehuda Katz – along with Guy Hever, who disappeared from his base on the Golan Heights in 1997.
It’s possible that the answers to these riddles lie in Syria. Hever disappeared near the border, while Feldman, Baumel and Katz were wounded during a battle with Syrian tanks. It would seem that the current civil war raging in Syria could provide an unprecedented chance of finding some information: The regular government order has been undermined, and surely there are people who know something about the fate of these MIAs who are no longer under the thumb of the Assad regime.
There seems to be a critical window of opportunity here for Israel to perhaps make progress on resolving the mystery of these MIAs, after long years of groping in the dark.