Thirty-seven years after going missing in the battle of Sultan Yaaqub in Lebanon, the body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel has been returned to Israel, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman said Wednesday.
Anwar Raja, an official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, a pro-Syrian regime faction which operates from the Yarmouk Camp district in Damascus, told the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen news channel the body was found at a cemetery in the Damascene refugee camp.
According to Raja, Baumel's remains were smuggled to Turkey and then transferred to Israel. Yarmouk Camp is home to several Palestinian factions, the largest of which is PFLP-GC, led by Ahmed Jibril.
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Speaking from his bureau, Netanyahu said Baumel's bones have been verified with certainty and thanked the intelligence community, including the Mossad and Shin Bet and the Israeli army for their efforts, and said further details of the diplomatic effort to retrieve his remains would be revealed later.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the news of the body's return end "37 unbearable years of excruciating wait, of questions and doubts." He praised security agencies for their part in the operation, and vowed to return all other missing Israeli soldiers.
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said, "bringing Baumel to burial in Israel is a testimony to the military, its commanders and soldiers' profound commitment to do everything in their power to bring our missing home.”
Baumel was one of six soldiers who went missing in Lebanon on June 11, 1982, at the beginning of the First Lebanon War, fighting against Syrian forces.
Twenty Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed in the battle. Two soldiers taken captive and the body of a third missing soldier were returned in 1984 and 1985. The whereabouts of two others, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, are still unknown.
Up until the return of Baumel's body, the fate of the three missing soldiers remained unclear, and they were believed to have been held by Palestinian organizations in Syria. The Israeli army had considered announcing their deaths, but hadn't done so eventually.
Baumel's father, Yonah, who passed away in 2009, said he was convinced his son was still alive.
The body has been identified at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir and by the IDF's chief rabbi. Baumel's body will be laid to rest in the upcoming days.
In 2016, Russia handed Israel one of two Israeli tanks that were part of the Sultan Yaaqub battle, which were taken by the Russian military to be presented at the Armored Corps Museum in Moscow.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said said in September 2018 that Russian forces in Syria are aiding in a special search operation for the remains of Israeli servicemen missing in action following prior conflicts.
He said Russian forces came under fire from ISIS militants while searching in coordinates provided by Israel. He noted that one Russian officer was wounded, but the operation continued.
Four coffins, allegedly holding the bodies of four Israeli soldiers killed in Sultan Yaaqub, were buried in Damascus’s Jewish cemetary in July 1982. A year later, the International Red Cross had been allowed by Syria to inspect the bodies, and found that three of them are of dead Palestinian fighters.
This led to Israeli intelligence focusing of Palestinian organizations in Syria and the PLO leadership at the time in a bid to locate the bodies. The negotiations between Israel and the PLO in the 1990s pushed these efforts further, and in November 1993 Yasser Arafat handed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s special enovy part of Baumel’s military dog tag.
During the second half of the 90s and the early 2000s, a special team, manned by Military Intelligence Directorate, Shin Bet and Mossad officials, successfully gathered intelligence on the location of Baumel’s body.