Body of Missing Soldier Returned to Israel Last Week; His Belongings Awaited Netanyahu in Russia

The Israeli military could not explain the decision to keep Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel's jumpsuit and shoes in Moscow

A ceremony for Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel in Moscow, Russia, April 4, 2019.
קובי גדעון / לע"מ

The remains of the body of an Israeli soldier who went missing in the First Lebanon War in 1982 were brought to Israel last week on Wednesday, but his jumpsuit and shoes remained in Russia until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit on Thursday. 

Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel, who disappeared during the Sultan Yaaqub battle, will be laid to rest in Jerusalem Thursday evening, 37 years after his death.

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The remains were transferred from Syria to Russia several days before they arrived in Israel, most likely on Sunday, together with the remains of other bodies. Russian soldiers exhumed the body parts from a cemetery in Syria, where they also found Baumel's jumpsuit and shoes. 

An Israel Defense Forces unit, commanded by Col. A., received the findings and identified them ahead of their final verification in Israel.

For reasons that remain unclear, only the remains were sent to Israel, while the jumpsuit and shoes remained in Russia – despite their potential importance for the process of identification. 

Netanyahu received the items from Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Moscow and will bring them to the Baumel family upon his return Thursday evening. 

The IDF could not explain the decision to keep Baumel's belonging in Russia, but turned down claims that there were political interests involved in the timeline of the transfer and of the public reveal.

Last Friday, Baumel's remains were identified with certainty but the publication of the information was delayed due to an assessment, which turned out to be false, that the body of Zvi Feldman, another of the three soldiers who went missing in that battle, could be identified as well. 

The security establishment did not think it could identify the body of the third soldier, Yehuda Katz, who was in a separate tank than Baumel and Feldman's, and which – according to intelligence assessments – is located in a distant place.

A diplomatic source told reporters in Moscow on Thursday that Russia has said publishing information about the operation to retrieve Baumel's body would not harm the efforts to locate the other two missing soldiers.

The source added that Israel was not required to pay a diplomatic price for the return of the body and that the Russians were the ones who had asked not to expose their involvement in the operation before Netanyahu's delegation arrived in Moscow. According to the source, "The timing of the publication is obvious. When you have remains, and a 90-year-old mother, you don't withhold the information."

IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Thursday that Israeli soldiers were not directly involved in transferring the remains of the body from Syria, but did not deny their presence of Syrian territory in earlier occasions. 

"In a series of operations held together with the Russian military, there were no IDF soldiers on Syrian ground," Manelis said. "In previous operations you can understand what you like. Thanks to them this intelligence was formed. It was known from day one that there was a jumpsuit and shoes. There were several operations, not all in territory under Syrian military control." According to Manelis, the operation lasted two years.