TEL AVIV (Dec. 19)
The father of an Israeli soldier missing in Lebanon since 1982 sought the help of Palestine Liberation Organization officials in Tunis nearly a year ago to trace his son and six other Israeli soldiers believed to be held captive by Shi’ite groups.
Yona Baumel was identified by Israel Television on Monday night as the first Israeli to have had officially sanctioned contact with the PLO.
The Defense Ministry, in fact, paid for his two visits to Tunis in January 1989.
Although his mission apparently did not accomplish its purpose, it demonstrated that Israel would deviate from its ironclad policy of never dealing with the PLO in order to achieve humanitarian ends.
Baumel’s trip was revealed after Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin disclosed Monday that the strict legal ban against contact with the PLO had been waived to help the families of missing soldiers ascertain their whereabouts and state of health.
HELD IN SYRIAN-CONTROLLED AREA
Baumel said he was invited to Tunis by the PLO and was picked to represent the seven families, because he could travel there on the U.S. passport he holds. Baumel’s family emigrated here from Brooklyn in the 1970s.
He told Israel Radio on Tuesday that he went to the Defense Ministry as soon as he got the invitation, and it immediately agreed to his trip and provided the necessary funds.
Baumel said he met in Tunis with, among others, Yasir Abed Rabbo, a senior official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who heads the PLO delegation that conducts talks with the U.S. ambassador in Tunis.
Baumel discovered, however, that the strings to pull to gain the release of the missing soldiers led through Damascus.
Baumel’s son Zachary, and possibly others, are believed to be held in the Syrian-controlled area of Lebanon, most likely the Bekaa Valley.
Zachary Baumel and two other Israel Defense Force tank crewmen were in battle with Syrian tanks near Sultan Ya’acoub, shortly after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in June 1982.
Yona Baumel said he was told by a witness that his son was seen alive after he was captured.
The sister of Yehuda Katz, another missing soldier, said an unnamed “European official” had confirmed to her that her brother was alive and a prisoner in an Arab country.
In addition to Baumel and Katz, the missing soldiers are Zvi Feldman, Yosef Fink, Rahamim Alsheikh, Samir Assad and Capt. Ron Arad.