Submerged in all the celebrations, ceremonies and media fanfare marking 45 years since Israel’s dramatic win in the 6-Day War of 1967, the 30th anniversary of the “Peace for Galilee” operation of 1982 has all but vanished. The reason for that is quite simple. The war was never universally popular amongst the Israeli population and became controversial shortly after it began; although a ceasefire was agreed, the war itself didn’t end decisively for decades; and it left Israel in the Lebanese security zone until 2000, with the IDF suffering dozens of casualties and fatalities over the years. The IDF’s controversial withdrawal from South Lebanon under Ehud Barak in 2000 (see opinion articles here and here) left Israel facing Hezbollah, and the inevitable war of 2006, the “Second Lebanon War”, which too left Israel with a bitter taste in its mouth and 2 missing reservists whose bodies were only returned years later.
All this brings us to one bitter legacy of that well-intentioned but badly managed war, and that is that three IDF soldiers who were captured in one of the worst battles of the war are still missing in action to this day. Their names are Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and American-born Zachary Baumel. Their memory is rapidly fading in the Israeli consciousness and in any case their cause was never as popular as Ron Arad (still MIA since 1986) or Gilad Shalit who was so happily brought home last year.
Exactly 30 years ago, during the night between the 10th and 11th of June, 1982 (the 20th of Sivan – a date commemorating other historical Jewish tragedies), the IDF fought Syrian forces in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Considered one of Israel’s worst failures in the First Lebanon War, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed and another three went missing. Eyewitnesses testified that three Israeli soldiers were paraded through Damascus several days after the battle, but the trail begins to run cold after that, although there were indications in 1993, 2000, and possibly even 2005 that at least some of the missing Israeli soldiers were still alive. Perhaps, as the Syrian regime – long suspected of holding the soldiers – continues to crumble, we will finally get some definitive answers.
It has been 30 years, or 10,958 days, that their families – two of the three, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, were/are children of Holocaust survivors – have been in the dark about the fate of their sons and brothers. Brooklyn-born Zachary Baumel’s father passed away in 2009, having dedicated the last 27 years of his life to bringing his son home by cultivating contacts in enemy states, suing governments, and organizing campaigns, but ultimately suffering immense frustration.
When I studied at the Kerem B’Yavneh yeshiva in the early 1990s, Yehuda Katz’s presence was still felt there. He had been an outstanding student in its Hesder program, combining yeshiva study with army service.
The missing soldiers are remembered elsewhere as well. Baumel’s alma mater, Yeshivat Har Etzion, commemorated this sombre anniversary last week. In synagogues throughout the world, a special prayer is recited each Shabbat for missing and captured Israeli soldiers, and the three who went missing at Sultan Yacoub are often mentioned by name. And yet, for some reason – and there is really no hypothesis that reflects well on this country – Yehuda, Tzvi, and Zachary never gained the public support that Ron Arad or Gilad Shalit did.
There are very few people who still think that any of these three soldiers are coming back alive, although perhaps it is not too late for their families to gain some sort of closure. The story of Yehuda, Tzvi, and Zachary deserves Israel’s attention on the anniversary of their disappearance – not only because we have no other way to remember them, but because we also need to remember that we failed them.
Please keep the memory of these three soldiers alive; let us not forget them and let us work to either free them or get their bodies back as tirelessly as we all campaigned for Gilad Shalit.