By Marian Lebor
June 1, 2009
Zacharia Baumel, a combat soldier in the IDF’s armoured corps, disappeared in June 1982 along with five other soldiers during the battle of Sultan Yakoub at the beginning of the First Lebanon War. The six soldiers were reported missing and the whereabouts of three: Zacharia, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, are still unknown. Yona Baumel, Zacharia’s father, worked tirelessly over the past 27 years to find his son, but he died last Friday without ever seeing Zacharia again, or finding out what happened to him.
Yona Baumel was understandably bitter about the failure of the government and the IDF to locate his son. In an article for the Jerusalem Post in 2006, he wrote: "Personally, I feel let down and betrayed by members of the army and the government." In an interview with Army Radio in 2007, he accused the government of having "a hierarchy of MIAs" and investing huge sums of taxpayer money on the search for missing IAF navigator Ron Arad while ignoring the other missing soldiers."We are working alone and spending our own money," he said, "and when we need even the smallest cooperation from the government we don't get it. We have resigned ourselves to this, because [for the IDF and the government] those who crawl on the ground are less important than pilots."
At the time, the army responded that it didn't differentiate between
missing soldiers, and cited the fact that Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi had recently met family members of all the MIAs.
I’ve been rereading articles American-born Yona Baumel wrote about his fruitless search for Zacharia and watched again TV interviews he gave and I can’t help wondering if he felt at a disadvantage trying to deal with his terrible predicament as an immigrant in Israel. On the other hand, unlike families of other MIAs, from the outset he was able to elicit help from friends in the United States.
The Baumel family has been living in a cruel state of uncertainty for almost three decades. As Yona’s health began to deteriorate in recent weeks, he had the added pain of knowing that this uncertainty would not be resolved before his impending death.
The Baumels’ tragic story is a lesson for all of us who are campaigning for Gilad Shalit. Gilad was kidnapped three years ago this month and we cannot allow this saga to drag on until the government says, once again, that it simply does not know where he is.
In a TV interview, Yona Baumel suggested that the International Red Cross should be more involved with efforts to locate his son, who was a prisoner of war. The same is true for Gilad Shalit.
According to the IRC’s mission statement: “In Israel and the occupied and autonomous territories, the IRC works towards ensuring the faithful application of international humanitarian law. IRC delegates visit detainees held by Israel and by Palestinian authorities; they facilitate visits by their families and the exchange of messages.”
As far as we know, Gilad is being held in Gaza, not Lebanon, Syria or Iran. The IRC must fulfill its own mission statement immediately and - at the very least - determine Gilad Shalit’s state of health and bring a message from him to his family.