Days after the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, who went missing in Lebanon in 1982, were brought to Israel, hundreds of people gathered at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem for his funeral Thursday.
President Reuven Rivlin spoke at the funeral and thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his help in retrieving Baumel's remains from Syria. "A special thank you to Russian President Putin for his commitment to the operation and his warm friendship with Israel and the Jewish people," Rivlin said.
Besides Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former military chief Gabi Ashkenazi, who is running on the Kahol Lavan slate in Israel's April 9 election, were also in attendance.
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Baumel's sister said in the funeral, "Our prayers were answered. The earth hugs him tightly. We hug him and pray that mother will have strength and joy from the small things in life." At the family's request, there was no ceremonial shooting, as is customary in military funerals. Baumel's family was also opposed to an official service in Ben Gurion Airport upon Netanyahu's return from Russia.
Staff Sgt. Baumel disappeared during the Sultan Yaaqub battle during the First Lebanon War. On 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 remains of his body were transferred from Syria to Russia before they arrived in Israel, most likely about a week and a half ago, 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.
The body was brought to Israel last week on Wednesday, but his jumpsuit and shoes remained in Russia until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit on Thursday. Netanyahu received the items from Russian President Vladimir Putin and brought them with him to Israel when he returned to Moscow, to give them to the Baumel family.
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. 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.
A diplomatic source told reporters in Moscow on Thursday 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.
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