With the return of the body of Zachary Baumel, the battle of Sultan Yacoub – one of the Israel Defense Forces' toughest battles of the first Lebanon War – is back on the agenda. At the start of the war, a few hours before a cease-fire with Syria, an Israeli Armored Corps battalion was on its way to the Beirut-Damascus road when it was surrounded by Syrian forces. Other IDF forces came to rescue the trapped soldiers, and over the course of the battle, 20 soldiers were killed and dozens were wounded.
The battle was considered a major IDF failure and a source of pride for the Syrian army. There were soon serious complaints about the IDF’s readiness for the battle and the way it was conducted. In their book, “The Lebanon Israel War 1982,” journalists Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Yaari wrote that the army had intelligence about the scope of Syrian forces in the battle zone, including aerial photos, but the information didn’t reach the field. It was also claimed that the soldiers' mission had changed, but that change wasn’t conveyed to the field, either.
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In the heat of battle, two Israeli tanks disappeared. The commander of one of them, Yehuda Katz, disappeared and is considered missing in action to this day. The second tank had four crew members: the commander, Hezi Shai, was captured by the Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and was returned to Israel three years later in the Jibril deal. The radioman, Arik Lieberman, was captured by the Syrian army and returned alive as well. The other two crew members, Zvi Feldman and Baumel, were missing in action until the announcement confirming Baumel’s death on Wednesday.
Over the years, conflicting reports were published about the fate of the three MIAs. In 2004, the IDF chief chaplain sought to declare them fallen soldiers whose burial place was not known, but the soldiers' families resisted the move. From time to time the families were given false hope about the bodies being discovered, or received messages and hints from various sources. During the 1990s, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat gave part of Baumel’s dog tag to his father Yona. The PA claimed that members of Palestinian organizations who took part in the fighting in the Bekaa Valley buried the three after the battle. In 2003 there was a report from Lebanon that three skeletons were uncovered that might be the MIAs, but it was later determined that the skeletons were probably Palestinian.
The Syrian civil war raised hopes in Israel that the chaos there could be exploited to obtain details about the MIAs’ fate. In 2016, through Russian mediation, a tank was transferred to Israel, which according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of those in which the three MIAs had been, but it was noted that it may not have been their tank but another that had operated in the sector. Last year it was reported that Russian soldiers were wounded in an attempt to locate the body of an Israeli soldier in an area controlled by the Islamic State, and that a Syrian rebel group was searching for the remains of the three to return them to Israel.
Baumel’s father Yona died in 2009 after devoting his life to worldwide efforts to determine what had happened to his son. At the end of his life, he made harsh allegations against the IDF and the state. He accused them of deceiving the family, and said that they wanted to whitewash the affair and had argued there was no point in continuing the search since the three were dead. Yehuda Katz’s mother died in 2011, also without knowing what happened to her son.
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Along with the two still missing from Sultan Yacoub, the IDF defines two additional soldiers as MIAs: Ron Arad, the navigator who was captured in Lebanon in 1986, and Guy Hever, an artillery soldier who disappeared in the Golan Heights in 1997. Unlike soldiers who are declared dead but whose burial place is unknown, families of MIAs do not observe shiva, the seven days of mourning, and they are not recognized by the defense establishment as bereaved families.
As of now there are around 100 soldiers whose burial place is unknown, most of whom were killed in the War of Independence. The most recent one is Oron Shaul, who was killed in the battle of Shujaiyeh during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 (Hadar Goldin, who was killed on “Black Friday” in Rafah, was declared dead but still missing). The status of such soldiers can change decades later. In May 2018, the burial place of Liebke Schaffer was discovered, 70 years after she was killed in the War of Independence, and in November the remains of Yakir Naveh, who was killed in a plane crash in 1962, were found in Lake Kinneret.