The Israel Defense Forces has decided to declare three MIAs from the 1982 Sultan Yaqub battle - Zecharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman - as fallensoldiers whose burial places are unknown.
The families of the soldiers were to be informed of the decision today, but release of the announcement has been delayed.
During the past two years, a special POW and MIA committee from the IDF's Military Intelligence branch investigated all information available to the defense establishment, to review assumptions regarding the fate of the three missing IDF men.
The committee was appointed by the head of the IDF's personnel directorate, Major General Gil Regev. A few weeks ago, the panel concluded that, based on an analysis of both new information and existing materials, the three men should be regarded as soldiers who were killed in the line of duty. There is no evidence to support a belief that the three are alive, the committee found.
The panel's findings were relayed to the IDF's chief chaplain, Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, who reviewed the information and concluded that the finding is not at variance with Jewish law.
A few years ago, the IDF made a similar effort to declare the three fatalities, based on intelligence information that was available at the time. Under pressure from the families, the army refrained from issuing an announcement.
The three MIAs took part in a battle near the Sultan Yaqub village on June 12, 1982, during the first week of the Lebanon War. Katz commanded one of the two tanks that disappeared during the battle. Baumel and Feldman served in the other tank.
An IDF force entered the area around the Sultan Yaqub village, but due to an intelligence failure, the soldiers were trapped by an ambush perpetrated by Syrian tanks and commando fighters. The fierce battle, which lasted almost a day, is considered one of the most grueling episodes in the Lebanon War. Thirty IDF soldiers were killed, and many more were injured. Hezi Shai and Ariel Lieberman were taken prisoner and the body of a third soldier, Zohar Lipschitz, was taken by the Syrians (his body was returned in June 1984). In May 1985, within the framework of the so-called Jibril exchange, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine returned Shai. The Syrians returned Lieberman.
The IDF lacked solid evidence regarding the fates of Baumel, Katz and Feldman. Some accounts suggested the three were killed, and that their corpses, together with IDF tanks, were put on parade in Damascus. Other intelligence reports suggested the three were buried in Damascus.
Since the battle, IDF Military Intelligence officers and government representatives who address MIA and POW issues have tried to obtain reliable information about the fate of the three men. These efforts have been to no avail. Family members have made worldwide efforts, meeting with leaders of foreign countries and with anyone who might have information about their loved ones. Like the IDF and government officials, the relatives have not found reliable information.
Yona Baumel, the father of Zecharia Baumel, said last night that some months ago he received word from unofficial sources that the IDF intends to declare that the three are killed soldiers.
"I thought then, as I think now, that the IDF is mistaken," he said. "They don't have bodies, and they don't have proof, that the men are not alive."
He criticized the IDF, saying its assumptions about the trio are based on circumstantial evidence.
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