Seven Decades On, Israel Is Still Searching for Its War of Independence MIAs

Whether it’s a pilot who crashed on the Gaza front or a soldier who may never have even existed, a special unit in the Israeli army doesn’t stop looking

Soldiers of the Israeli army's Eitan unit that searches for MIAs, in the Golan Heights, 2017.
IDF's Eitan unit

For the last 70 years, Shlomo Katz was thought to be one of the 100 Israeli soldiers killed in the War of Independence whose burial place is unknown. Next to no information exists about him, no one looked for his body after his death, and no one has ever been found who knew him. Even the special unit for solving such MIA cases – the Israel Defense Forces’ Eitan unit – considers his file unusual.

The unit was established following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and a decade ago it also began looking for the missing from the War of Independence. Encouraged by it successes, it continues to study a number of complex mysteries as Israel turns 70 this week.

The unit even suggested that perhaps Shlomo Katz never existed and his name was added to a list of the War of Independence’s dead by accident. But before removing him from the MIA list, the unit is asking the public for help – maybe someone is still around who actually knew him.

Katz’s file went to Prof. Yoram Epstein, a physiologist and one of the unit’s longest serving veterans in the reserves. In the army's archives, Epstein discovered that, according to the IDF, Katz was one of the three soldiers killed on May 16, 1948 in an ambush; the Palmach, the pre-independence army’s strike force, had tried to blow up the Hatzbani Bridge in southern Lebanon.

While the other two soldiers who were killed in the operation, Gad Greenboim and Avigdor Kremersh, have pictures and full biographies including birthdates and names of their parents, Katz’s file is empty. Greenboim and Kremersh were buried at the Kibbutz Kfar Giladi cemetery in the far north near where they were killed, and their bodies were later reinterred at Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery. But Katz can’t be found buried anywhere.

Moshe Ben Tov, a driver in the young Israeli army who disappeared without a trace.
The website Yizkor

Epstein managed to locate the company commander who led the force, who said that only two soldiers were killed in the incident, and other Palmach veterans agreed. Epstein later found a document in the archives with Katz listed as killed in action at the Hatzbani Bridge, his serial number next to his name.

But when Epstein checked the number in the IDF’s databases, it belonged to a different Shlomo Katz, a Haifa resident who served during the War of Independence on the Jerusalem front and was actually still alive. “I’ve examined every possible thing,” Epstein says, referring to what he does before he takes the dramatic step of removing someone from the list of MIAs.

Another name that has kept Epstein and the rest of Eitan busy is Moshe Ben Tov (Treblinski). During World War II, Ben Tov fled Poland to Russia and later reached British Mandatory Palestine with the so-called Anders Army – Polish forces that formed in the Soviet Union and fought in the Middle East under the British. Ben Tov deserted in British Palestine and joined the Palmach.

On April 12, 1948, Ben Tov was assigned to be a driver. Six days later he disappeared without a trace. His parents, Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel a few months later, tried in vain to find him. “Something happened to him, but we don’t know anything,” Epstein says.

Epstein discovered in army documents that Ben Tov appears as one of the dead during the attack on a large convoy heading to Jerusalem on April 20, 1948. Among the passengers were David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. But Epstein says he found that no bodies were left behind.

Soldiers of the Israeli army's Eitan unit that searches for MIAs, in the Golan Heights, 2017.
IDF's Eitan unit

The question is whether Ben Tov was killed during that incident, and if not, where did he disappear to? “This isn’t an easy case, because we have no real information that he was even there,” Epstein says.

What makes Ben Tov hard to locate is that he was a driver who was attached to a different unit, so the other soldiers in the convoy didn’t know him well. His parents died long ago. He was an only son and had no children of his own, making it all the harder to find out anything about him.

Ben Tov is not alone. Yaakov Zrihen, who was born in Casablanca, Morocco, also disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him up. He is also listed by the army as having been killed in the same convoy as Ben Tov, but there is no evidence to back this up.

Other cases Eitan is working on have been frozen for a number of reasons. One concerns a fighter pilot from Los Angeles, Robert Lester Vickman, a U.S. pilot during World War II who volunteered for the newly founded Israel Air Force during the War of Independence. On July 9, 1948, when he was 27, Vickman’s fighter crashed in or near Gaza on a mission to attack an Egyptian air base in Sinai.

Even though it’s almost impossible for Israel to investigate the crash for now, Epstein isn’t giving up. “We have a lot of successes, even if they come in drips and drabs,” he says, adding that the IDF’s commitment not to leave any of the dead behind is a very real thing for him – his mission and duty.

Yaakov Zrihen, who became an MIA after an attack on a convoy to Jerusalem in 1948.
The website Yizkor