The Israeli army on Wednesday said it had recovered the body of a soldier who went missing in a bloody 1982 battle with Syrian forces in southern Lebanon, closing a famous case that has dogged Israel for nearly four decades.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters that the remains of Zachary Baumel had been returned to Israel and identified after years of “significant intelligence operations.”
Conricus declined to elaborate on how the return was arranged or where the remains were found, saying only that “an opportunity arose to locate the body” through an unnamed country.
Baumel, a U.S. citizen from New York, went missing in action along with five other soldiers near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub.
Two of the missing soldiers were returned alive to Israel a few years later. The body of a third was also returned, according to Israeli media. But the fate of the other three had remained unknown.
In a nationally televised speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Baumel’s remains, along with his clothing and tzitzit, the knotted ritual fringes worn by observant Jews, had been returned to his family in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu said that Baumel was “full of Zionist zeal” that led him to Israel and to the battle where he disappeared. He recalled the pain of his late father, who “traveled the world to track down any piece of information about his missing son.”
Osnat Haberman, Baumel’s sister, told Netanyahu: “I told my mother years ago that it was not enough to want and to search. There needs to be someone with the winning card and now you have brought it.”
Cases of missing soldiers have a powerful emotional and political resonance in Israel, where military service is compulsory for most Jewish men. In his remarks, Netanyahu lauded the repatriation of Baumel’s remains as an “expression of mutual responsibility and feeling of unity” that epitomizes Israel. He described the homecoming as a “moral obligation” to fallen soldiers and their families.
Anwar Raja, a Syria-based official with the Palestinian militant group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
Lebanese politician Walid Joumblatt, a harsh critic of the Syrian government, hinted in a tweet Wednesday that Syrian authorities were responsible for the return of the soldier.
“Handing over the remains of the Israeli soldier through unknown mediators is a free and valuable gift to Netanyahu in his elections,” Joumblatt tweeted.
Israel holds its general election next week, largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule.
Joumblatt poked fun at the Syrian government, adding sarcastically: “Greetings to the Syrian regime that is spearheading Arab, regional and international rejectionism.”
The disastrous battle, which occurred soon after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, resulted in the deaths of 20 Israeli soldiers.
The military confirmed it was still working to secure the return of the other two missing soldiers.