The remains of Israel Defense Forces’ soldier Zachary Baumel were brought to Israel for burial last week, 37 years after he was killed in the battle of Sultan Yacoub in the 1982 Lebanon War. Since then, the IDF has spared no effort to locate him—something that was only now made possible thanks to the involvement of Russian President Vladmir Putin and the assistance of the Russian military. The location of Baumel gave hope that we might soon be informed that the bodies of his fellow soldiers, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who have also been missing since that battle, had been located and identified.
The breakthrough that allowed for the discovery of Baumel’s remains was the end of the war that raged in Syria for eight years. It is only now that the battles in the country have subsided and the Islamic State group expelled from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus that it became possible to reach the cemetery where missing Israeli soldiers were buried, find Baumel’s body and return it to Israel.
It should be noted, though, that Islamic State has only controlled the Yarmouk camp since the summer of 2015. In contrast, for the majority of the nearly 40 years that have passed since that fateful fight, the Syrian regime has controlled the camp with an iron fist.
It goes without saying that the Syrian regime did not bother to share with Israel—let alone the Red Cross—any concrete information about fallen IDF soldiers in its possession. It didn’t even bother to preserve the bodies, in accordance with the laws of war and basic human norms.
Even when Israel and Syria began to engage in peace talks in the early 1990s, the Syrians continued to maintain their silence on the fate of fallen soldiers.
Then-Syrian President Hafez Assad lied through his teeth to U.S. President Bill Clinton in response to his request to act to return the bodies of the missing IDF soldiers, as a goodwill gesture that would help advance peace talks between Damascus and Jerusalem. Assad replied that he could not understand why Israel was raising the issue. In the Golan Heights, the remains of 700 soldiers killed in the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War are interred, he told the U.S. president, yet he feels no need to try to locate their bodies and return them to their families. The insincere Syrians allowed the Americans to send a team to Lebanon to attempt to learn the fate of the missing Israelis, all the while knowing that the bodies had been buried for years in Damascus.
It may be that sheer inhumanity was the basis for Syria’s behavior over the years, but it’s just as logical that its leaders acted out of a desire to trade and haggle over the bodies in peace talks. It was in this manner that Damascus set an example for the Palestinians, and later Hezbollah, on how to proceed in negotiations with Israel over the return of the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers in their hands.
Some of the story is behind us. Baumel was brought for burial in Israel, and there is hope that Israel, with Moscow’s assistance, will succeed in locating the bodies of his two friends. But alongside Feldman and Katz, there is another fallen Israeli soldier we have yet to return: Eli Cohen, our man in Damascus, who was caught by the Syrians and sentenced to death by hanging for spying for Israel 54 years ago, in May of 1965. Following his execution, Cohen was buried in the presence of the Damascus Jewish community in the city’s Jewish cemetery.
For years, the Syrians claimed that the grave was “lost,” and they didn’t know where Cohen was buried. In Israel, there was a tendency to believe the Syrians’ story. The country had experienced political upheaval, and it was plausible that in the mayhem the tomb had been lost, and as a result, the Syrian regime really didn’t know where Cohen’s remains were located. It is only following the location of Baumel’s remains that the disdainful conduct of the Syrians has been revealed. Now the time has come to enlist the Russians and put pressure on the Syrians to allow for the return of Eli Cohen’s body to Israel.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.