'We Can Still Find the Other Missing Israeli Soldiers'

Commander of operation to return body of Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel tells Haaretz what it took to retrieve the soldier's body ■ Why Hamas awaits the day after Israel's election

The coffin of Zachary Baumel, during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, April 4, 2019.
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

When Zachary Baumel. Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, young reservists in an armored corps battalion, went into battle at Sultan Yaaqub in Lebanon in June of 1982, Col. A. was a 6-year-old boy, about to enter first grade. This week A., now a senior officer in the Israeli army’s Intelligence Corps, wrapped up the last phase of the operation that he commanded, Operation Bittersweet Song, which brought the body of Sgt. Maj. Baumel back to Israel through a circuitous route. On Thursday evening, Col. A. attended Baumel’s funeral at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

Talking to Col. A on Wednesday evening was fascinating but also frustrating. He is still subject to a lot of restrictions. He cannot expand on the intelligence methods that were used in the effort to try to locate the three soldiers who went missing in action. And due to an unusual censorship directive, on the first day, a gag order was imposed on providing details regarding “a third country” in the case. The gag order began to look somewhat ridiculous the next day, when the secret that was not so secret was disclosed: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and thanked him for Russia’s involvement in the return of the body.

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A. told Haaretz that the coordination of the operation became his responsibility in recent years, but his activity was a direct continuation of an effort by all the branches of Israeli intelligence in the 37 years that had elapsed since the battle. “In the past five years, a rare opportunity emerged, which we pursued, and it enabled us to locate Zachary in the end.” 

“The regional shakeup,” an indirect reference to the civil war in Syria, “is creating numerous opportunities. People on the ground have existential interests, economic interests. And when you are dealing with operational activity, the field responds to you and in the process, you produce more intelligence. We made a lot of operational moves. In the end, we managed to focus the effort on the arena where the body was. Coupled with creativity and boldness in thinking, we finally solved the mystery. The area where the body was buried was known to us for many years, although there was also another theory, a legitimate one, to the effect that the MIAs had been buried near the battlefield.”

Zachary Baumel.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

After the Oslo agreements were signed in the 1990s, creating the Palestinian Authority, the head of the authority, Yasser Arafat, provided Israel with half of Baumel’s dog tag, which was then given to his family. The Israeli security establishment didn’t have the impression, however, that the Palestinians were telling everything they knew about the case. 
“Over the years, there were other deceptive moves by Arafat and other Palestinians concerning the location and concealment of the bodies,” A. said. “Through intelligence surveillance, we also managed to keep track of their deceptions.” By his assessment, only “very few” officials from the Syrian regime knew the exact burial location. “And some of the people were no longer there,” due to the civil war.

“I will try to speak without slogans,” said A. “From our standpoint, this is a national mission, a moral mission. I’ve always thought about the soldiers’ families. But I didn’t have any direct contact with them because I tried not to delve into that. I very much didn’t want to get involved in their everyday lives. I preferred to be focused on the task.”

He is aware of what the news from Wednesday has done to the lives of the three families. “How can you be at peace when you have a hard time believing that they are not among the living and you really don’t know what happened to them? We told ourselves that in two days the family would know and it would totally change the rest of their lives. When we identified Zachary’s jumpsuit and shoes, we couldn’t hold back the tears. It’s a feeling that’s impossible to describe.”

Baumel’s remains were among a number of other bodies and body parts that were transferred to Israel last week. “We understand that this is not the end of the search efforts,” A. said.  “I still think it’s possible to find Yehuda [Katz] and Zvi [Feldman] as well.”

Difficult to replicate in Gaza

What Israeli is managing to do in Syria it has had difficulty accomplishing right under its nose in the Gaza Strip. Hamas held captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for five years, until Netanyahu agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his return. When it comes to the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held in Gaza, those of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, and two Israeli civilians who crossed into Gaza, Abera Mengistu and  Hisham al-Sayid, a resolution will probably require a more extensive agreement that will include the release of Palestinian prisoners.
This leaves Netanyhau with his default option – doing nothing.

A resolution of the issue of the prisoners and the MIAs in Gaza will wait until after the election, if ever. In the meantime, the prevailing hope in the government is to get through the election period without a real conflagration in the Gaza Strip. The tremendous efforts the Egyptians, the United Nations and Qatar have invested, not always in coordination with one another, led to curbing the demonstrations along the border last weekend. This week, there was also a halt to the nighttime demonstrations in which cells working on Hamas’ behalf threw explosive charges and grenades in the vicinity of the border fence.

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The quid pro quo that Hamas received for the restraint is not inconsiderable – a limited opening of the border crossings and an expansion of the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles from shore, the largest the zone has been in the last 20 years. It is clear to everyone, however, that the real discussions will begin after the election and that Hamas is expecting far-reaching economic steps, the  rehabilitation of infrastructure in Gaza and an easing of the blockade in return for long-term quiet. But another tense weekend is still ahead of us, the relatively extensive deployment of Iron Dome anti-missile batteries would indicate.

On Thursday, in a radio interview to the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu claimed that “all options are on the table” but in the same breath, he also said there was no point in invading the Gaza Strip “because there won’t be anyone to give the keys to.” It appears that the Hamas leadership is fully aware of Netanyahu’s (justified) hesitation to pursue an extensive ground operation in Gaza.

The concentration of Israeli army units in the south, which was not accompanied by sufficiently serious operational preparations for a ground operation, was also understood in Gaza as just a threat. Hamas is tugging therefore trying to test Israel from time to time in the hope of extracting additional concessions. Nevertheless, the basic conditions in Gaza are so awful that without an extensive agreement after the election, the slide toward an all-out confrontation will resume.