Time Runs Out for Yonah Baumel, Father of MIA Zecharia
Yonah Baumel, 81, the father of missing IDF soldier Zecharia Baumel, passed away during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot - without ever learning the fate of his missing-in-action son.
The elder Baumel died of heart disease, after fighting for nearly three decades to determine what happened to his son, who disappeared in southern Lebanon during the Peace for Galilee War battle of Sultan Yacoub 27 years ago. If he is alive, Zecharia is 48 years old.
The funeral was held Saturday night, attended by his wife Miriam, three children and several grandchildren. The family came on Aliyah to Israel from Brooklyn, New York in 1970, when Zecharia was 10 years old.
Baumel became a symbol of the grassroots efforts of Israeli parents of IDF soldiers who were missing in action (MIAs). An outspoken critic of various governments, Baumel maintained throughout the long years that Israeli authorities had not been aggressive enough in their efforts to find his son.
The younger Baumel went missing with five other soldiers on June 11, 1982, when the tank he was driving and one other was hit in southern Lebanon. The other soldiers caught in the battle at the time included Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ariel Lieberman, Commander Hezi Shai and Zohar Lipschitz.
Lieberman and Shai were both taken prisoner, but were eventually returned to Israel in a 1985 prisoner exchange. Lipschitz was not as fortunate; the young soldier's body was returned a year later.
Feldman and Katz are still missing in action, their condition and whereabouts unknown.
Believing his son alive, on January 8, 2004, Baumel addressed an open letter in The Jerusalem Post to Syrian President Bashar Assad, reminding him that his son is an American citizen. "Both the U.S. and Israel committed to do the maximum to help return these boys," he said.
The hopeful father noted in frustration that although he had been granted a three-month tourist visa to visit Syria, "the specific invitation to meet with a suitable Syrian official did not arrive in time and the visa expired." Both American and Israeli officials "knew and approved of this channel," he said, adding, "I am prepared to go anywhere in the world to meet with any designated person to advance this cause."
Two years later, the Baumel family sued the government of Syria in a U.S. federal court, alleging that the Syrians had wrongfully held the younger Baumel since his capture in 1982. The lawsuit named not only the Syrian government, but also specifically Syrian President Assad, then-Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sha'ara and former Syrian Defense Minister Moustapha Tla'as.
"Our aim is not to obtain a financial judgment, but to get access to the MIAs," the desperate father explained to journalists at the time. "By hitting the Syrians where it hurts, in their pocketbooks, we hope to obtain positive results where all other methods have failed.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C. Federal District Court, utilized the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that facilitates collection of judgments against the U.S.-based assets of foreign governments designated as state sponsors of terrorism. Iranian assets in the U.S. have been frozen under the provisions of this statute in the past.