JERUSALEM, Nov. 6 (JTA) — During the last 53 years, more than 400 Israeli soldiers have been designated MIAs.
Yet despite the diplomatic and military efforts of seven successive governments, almost no progress has been made in determining their fate.
Only nine of these cases are officially listed as “soldiers missing but presumed to be alive,” according to the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers.
“No one can determine anything in terms of the deaths of these soldiers,” said Danny Eisen, a former Canadian and co-founder of the coalition.
“The presumption is that until there is absolute proof of death, the soldiers are considered alive,” he said. “This is the Middle East. The Syrians have been releasing people held for 20 years. You can’t close the books because you simply don’t have enough proof.”
The anguish of having a son, father or brother kidnapped has been part of Israel’s history since the 1948 War of Independence.
During the past year, four more names were added to the list of the missing.
In October 2000, Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped three Israeli soldiers — Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad — from a disputed area on the Israel-Lebanon border known as Shabaa Farms.
Shortly afterward, Hezbollah kidnapped an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who also served as a colonel in the Israeli reserves.
Last week, after a more than a year of diplomatic efforts to obtain information about the three soldiers, Israel Defense Force officials announced that they most likely are dead.
Tannenbaum’s fate remains unknown, the Prime Minister’s Office told JTA.
With the IDF announcement about the soldiers, the two Jewish families began sitting shiva for their dead sons.
The Souads, who are Druse, said they wouldn’t erect the traditional mourning tent because Islam requires at least two witnesses to attest to a death.
“It was hard to get to the bottom of this case,” Eisen said. “I feel that the government wouldn’t have made a public pronouncement unless the information was solid.”
“At least the families can begin mourning,” said Shlomo Erdinast, an attorney and former POW who heads Erim B’Layla, an organization that helps former POWs and their families.
Erim B’Layla means “Awake at Night” in Hebrew. The name refers to sleep difficulties that prisoners and former prisoners often experience, explained Erdinast, who was a POW in Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
For families of soldiers, the most difficult part of the POW experience is the uncertainty usually involved.
“Not knowing is much harder,” he said. “Look how it destroyed all these other families, the Baumels, the Katzes, the Feldmans.”
He was speaking of the families of Zachariah Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who disappeared June 11, 1982, in the Battle of Sultan Yakoub at the beginning of Israel’s war in Lebanon — and have been considered missing in action ever since.
When the three IDF soldiers were kidnapped last year, Hezbollah dedicated the act to Mohammed Dura, a 12-year-old Gaza boy whose death in an Israeli-Palestinian crossfire was broadcast around the world.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said at the time he would use the three captured Israeli soldiers to secure the release of Arab prisoners detained in Israel.
Israel for a time held 21 Lebanese prisoners as “bargaining chips” for information on its own MIAs. It had released most of the prisoners by April 2000, but still holds two prominent Lebanese militants — one from Hezbollah and another from a rival Shi’ite group, Amal — in an Israeli jail.
Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak told Beirut and Damascus that he held them directly responsible for the kidnapped soldiers’ fate.
Yet the Arab countries historically have been spectacularly indifferent to the fate of Israeli prisoners. The exception is when they can trade them for Arab prisoners — often at a ratio of dozens of Arab prisoners for each Israeli, or even for body parts of dead Israelis.
On June 11, 1982, days after the Lebanon War began, five Israeli soldiers went missing in a battle with Syrian and Palestinian forces near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yakoub.
Several years later, two of the captured soldiers were returned to Israel in prisoner exchanges with Syria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Nearly two decades later, the other three — Baumel, Katz and Feldman — remain missing.
Four years later, on Oct. 16, 1986, Lt. Col. Ron Arad bailed out of his plane while on a mission over Lebanon. He was believed to have been held for a time by pro-Iranian troops in Lebanon — but the last time any message was received that he was alive was in October 1987.
The IDF’s announcement last week, that the three soldiers kidnapped a year ago are dead, has put the MIA issue back on the public agenda, but it hasn’t shed any new light on the fate of other MIAs.
Eisen believes the government’s announcement was a stinging blow to Hezbollah, forcing the group to stop “dangling soldiers” as a kind of trump card.
“I think it has changed the dynamics,” he said. “It diminishes Hezbollah’s credibility.”
Just the same, the families of other MIAs are still left in the dark.
“No mother can believe her son isn’t alive,” said Erdinast, the former POW. “But no one can say they saw her son die.”
This week, the face of Haim Avraham told the story.
Avraham was sitting shiva for his son, Benny, one of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah last year and now declared dead.
The entire nation mourned with Avraham, who appeared on all the major television networks when Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer came to pay a condolence call.
“We have to bring their bodies home,” Avraham said, his shirt ripped and his face unshaven in traditional signs of mourning.
“And may the name of Nasrallah be erased,” he added, referring to the leader of Hezbollah.