With broken hearts but hope intact, the parents of three Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon remain committed to determining their sons’ fate and to keeping the issue of their sons’ plight on the international agenda.
The latest leg of their quest recently brought the soldiers’ families here to “rekindle interest in our case,” said Yonah Baumel, father of one of the soldiers. The families met with members of the press and leaders of Jewish organizations last month.
Israel Defense Force soldiers Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were reported captured during a battle with Syrian forces at Sultan Yakoub, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, in June 1982.
The highlight of the trip was a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The former Egyptian government official told the Israeli families he would be personally involved in efforts to secure the release or determine the fate of the missing soldiers, Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gad Yaacobi said in a press conference after the meeting.
Baumel, the only parent fluent in English, expressed the families’ satisfaction with Boutros-Ghali’s response, saying they “were very impressed by the seriousness of the secretary-general and of his promise to try to help and to influence the leaders in the area to provide information as to the whereabouts of our sons.”
The families strongly believe their boys are alive. They report they have been receiving reliable information over the years, most recently in September, indicating that the “boys are alive and well,” said Baumel.
Most experts maintain that Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, is the only prisoner still alive of the seven Israel Defense Force personnel missing in Lebanon since 1982.
Arad’s family has kept a higher profile than those of the other soldiers over the years, publicizing his case and meeting with world leaders on his behalf.
The other families are no less ardent in their mission, however. Their belief that their sons are alive is “what keeps us going,” said Baumel.
“We have a semblance of sanity. We’re not, let’s say, families of coal miners who are missing 10 years in a trapped mine, who are looking for the safe return of their loved ones,” he explained.
“We’ve had information that has kept us going and enabled us to put in the physical effort involved. Believe me, it’s not easy to do what we’re doing.”
He declined to reveal the information sources. “The nature of the sources are such that if we divulge them, we certainly burn the sources and we may also cause the death of the people who are supplying us with the information,” Baumel explained.
In an interview before their meeting with the U.N. leader, Baumel said their goal was “to impress upon (Boutros-Ghali) the need for the U.N. to live up to its promise to help in this case and also the ancillary benefits both for the U.N. and to the peace process by helping to solve this humanitarian problem.”
The promise to which Baumel referred was a commitment to help Israel find its missing servicemen after all the Western hostages in Lebanon were released last year. Israel was instrumental in securing their release.
But, said Baumel, this commitment has not been honored. “They said, `Get along with you. What do we need you for, we don’t have any more hostages.'”
Nahum Hofree, assistant to the Israeli Air Force attache, who was also present at the interview, added that the families felt betrayed.
“It was our understanding,” he said, that the West would focus its attention on the problem of Israeli soldiers missing in action. “Probably, we were too naive. The government of Israel, as usual, was too naive.”
With the peace process underway, the time is ripe to “make the Syrians more amenable to mounting an effort to finding these boys, who have been missing in a territory that has been continuously controlled by the Syrians,” said Baumel.
The families say they have information that the boys have been in an area under Syrian control. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that the Syrians are holding them, but they certainly could influence finding the boys or causing the group that is holding them to do something,” Baumel stated.
Israeli peace negotiators have “raised (the issue of the missing servicemen) on several occasions” in talks with Syria, said Baumel. “The problem is the Syrians have a stock answer. They don’t say the boys are dead, they don’t say the boys are alive.
“They say they don’t know. And our request is that the Syrians make an effort to find them because they have an ability, in view of the fact that they control the territories. Even if they don’t know, they can make an effort to find out.”
Meeting with American Jewish leaders, the families hoped to promote action following the call made by Israeli President Chaim Herzog to last month’s General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in New York.
“When President Herzog was here, he called upon American Jewry to take up the issue of the (missing soldiers) with the same vigor that they took up the issue of Soviet Jewry,” said Baumel. “We can only answer `amen’ to that.”
With words of love and longing, the parents described thei missing sons, attempting to bring to life the images of their boys.
“These boys were highly idealistic. They were strongly motivated to protect their country,” Baumel said.
Avraham and Penina Feldman called their son, Zvi, an “idealistic patriot” who loved singing and Israeli folk dancing. He was 25 and serving in the reserves when he disappeared in 1982.
Yosef and Sara Katz described Yehuda, their youngest son, as a “righteous” child. A religious man, Yehuda participated in a hesder yeshiva, which combines military service and yeshiva study.
“We are sure in our hearts that he is alive,” Yehuda’s mother insisted.
Zachary Baumel was born in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn and made aliyah with his family in 1970. “Born with a basketball in his hand,” Zachary was a “rascal” but a “good kid,” said his father. He, too, was in a hesder yeshiva.
Baumel explained, “If I present a slightly irreverent picture of him, it’s also because with the wealth of information we have, we strongly believe that the boys are alive.
“And we hope that in the course of time, we will see them home again safe and sound, as much as they can be safe and sound after what they’ve gone through for 10 years.”