TEL AVIV – While the national conversation has been focused on the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Wednesday quietly marked the 32nd anniversary of the capture in Syria of a Brooklyn-born Israeli soldier.
Reports in recent years have indicated Zachary Baumel, seized in Lebanon in 1982, is still alive.
As WND reported, information was released in 2005 indicating he was being held in a prison in Syria.
Baumel, a dual American-Israeli citizen, was taken along with two Israeli members of his tank crew, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, during Israel’s foray in the Lebanon War.
All three were photographed in Damascus on the day of their capture. Several eyewitnesses, including a Time magazine reporter, said they watched a parade in which the tank and crew were led through a major street in Damascus and flaunted to cheering crowds. The ceremony was the last occasion the soldiers were seen publicly.
In March 2005, Yona Baumel, Zachary’s father, told WND that sources he had cultivated in Syria told him they visited his son that year at a Syrian military installation just north of the border with Iraq. Yona Baumel, who died in 2009, was also given a book from a confidante of a family in Syria that contains coded messages Baumel claimed could have been written only by his son.
Yona in 2005 showed WND pages from the book, a 1999 novel titled “The Map of Love.” The lettering had been stained after extensive Israeli forensics testing, but a series of marks were visible under the letters “BAZMUTACUMKCEL” – ZACK BAUMEL MTUC.”
The “MTUC,” Yona had explained, came from an old family joke that outsiders would not be in a position to know.
“It had to have been written by Zack,” said Baumel. “It refers to an old joke he was told from a long time ago when his mother, whose maiden name was Miriam Turetsky, or MT, was a kid. The other children would point at her head and say, ‘It’s empty, you see,’ or MTUC.”
Additionally, phrases throughout the book were underlined or circled, including “A child forsaken,” “I have hope” and “help me.”
Baumel had said the evidence had given him hope and a renewed sense of urgency in his campaign to find his son.
“The information continues to trickle in,” said Baumel at the time.
He and Stuart Ditchek, Zachary’s childhood friend and the founder of the Committee for the Release of Zachary Baumel, attempted several times to petition the Syrian government to release Zachary or to set up a personal meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Their efforts were ultimately rebuffed.
‘Syrian government directly responsible’
“Over the years, a wealth of information has accrued that the Syrian government is directly responsible in this case,” Yona Baumel said in the 2005 interview.
Zachary Baumel was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended yeshiva until his family immigrated to Israel in 1970, where he graduated high school and enlisted in the Israeli army. Baumel nearly finished his military service when he was called up to serve in the Lebanon War. Just hours before the declaration of a cease-fire, Zachary was sent into battle near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yaqub and subsequently captured. That day, 21 Israelis were killed and many more were injured.
Several weeks after Baumel was captured, Syrian officials said they buried four bodies in a Jewish cemetery. Baumel was thought to have been among the dead. But a year later, the Red Cross exhumed the graves and found the bodies were that of three Arabs and one Israeli missing from the same battle.
Syrian officials since have given conflicting reports to the media, including statements claiming Baumel and his three Israeli crewmen still were alive.
Also, Israeli diplomatic sources told WND in 2006 Syrian officials have implied through third party messengers Baumel was still alive.
Prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, PLO leader Yasser Arafat presented Israel with half of Baumel’s dog tag and claimed he had information on the missing soldier’s whereabouts. Arafat later refused to release further details.