The search for fallen Israeli soldiers in enemy territory never ends.
First Sergeant Zachary Baumel was laid to rest at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem over three decades after he went missing in Lebanon during the 1982 war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin together with high-profile Israeli officials joined family members at a poignant ceremony.
DNA tests at Abu Kabir Forensics Institute in Tel Aviv confirmed the Brooklyn-born soldier’s identity.
“All the prayers have brought us here,” said Asna Haberman in a heartfelt tribute to her brother, who immigrated to Israel with his parents from New York in 1970.
“I can’t even hug you, but the soil is hugging you tightly because there is nothing but love between the son who gave everything for this land and the land itself.
“We are saying goodbye to you today, I am letting this land have you. Rest in peace.”
Netanyahu remembered Zachary’s father, Yona, who died 10 years ago.
“On this day we remember the late Yona and his love for Zachary, his pain, his longing, his faith, his tireless devotion to bring Zachary home,” he said.
“How unfortunate that you’re not here with us to see the return of your beloved son.”
He added, “We have waited for this moment for 37 years, and I have seen people, born years after Zachary disappeared, shed tears.
“The return of our sons touches the depths of our identities as Jews and Israelis.”
Rivlin noted, “Zachary, just a few days before the battle in which you fell, you wrote to your parents, ‘Don’t worry, everything is fine, but it seems that I won’t come home anytime soon. 37 years have passed since that letter, you’ve come home, to this country’s land, to Jerusalem.”
He added, “Today, we can say with full confidence that we are doing everything, both incomprehensible and unbelievable, in order to fulfil our promise to return the sons who did not return from battle. We will continue to make every effort to also bring home Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, Zachary’s two friends, who fell with him in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub..
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said returning the remains gave the family peace but the pain would remain forever.
He added, “If it’s any consolation, Zachary was returned and buried in his country.
“I salute you, a courageous fighter, a man of faith and values who was forced by his devotion to fight until the end.”
Baumel’s partial remains, army overalls and tzitzit arrived in Israel, resulting in formal identification, after Russian troops located them in a Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Netanyahu during talks in Moscow last week that soldiers together with Syrian partners established his resting place and was happy he would receive the “necessary military honours at home”.
Netanyahu thanked Putin after making a personal request two years ago to help in the search out of shared values of “comrades-in-arms and fellowship of soldiers”.
“You responded immediately, you said that you would act personally, you called on your people who did exceptional work,” he said.
According to IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, the body was returned to Israel on an El Al plane and identified after years of “significant intelligence operations.”
Operation Bittersweet Song began two years ago for the families of Baumel, Katz and Feldman.
In June 2016, Russia repatriated the IDF tank the three soldiers were in were killed on June 11, 1982, from Moscow’s Kubinka Tank Museum.
Former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and Colonel A. of Military Intelligence were involved in a protracted operation that hit a snag due to the accidental downing of a Russian military aircraft in Syria.
But Israel’s developing dialogue with Russia intensified the search the recent months.
“I’ll never forget the moment we saw the remains,” said Colonel A. “We could immediately determine that the overalls belonged to the IDF’s Armored Corps. We looked at the writing on the back in Hebrew, which was amazingly preserved.
“We also identified the IDF imprint on the shoes. It was an emotional moment, we couldn’t help but cry,” said Colonel A. “We knew that after 37 years, we finally had the remains.”
“There was no deal and no negotiations to return Baumel. He was returned in a military operation,” said IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manlis.
“We are not saying where his body was found. The operation proves that we never abandoned the Sultan Yacoub case. The families know that we will continue to make every effort to bring their sons home.”
President Rivlin welcomed the moving but painful news and praised security forces in the operation.
“Thirty-seven unbearable years of painful waiting, of questions and doubts have come to an end thanks to the determined and ceaseless work of the IDF and Israel’s intelligence community,” he said in a statement.
“On this difficult, moving and sad day, our thoughts are with the Baumel family, crying and hurting with them as they bring their son Zachary to eternal rest in our country, our land.
“I thank the IDF and Israeli intelligence community for their commitment, bravery and action, day and night, to bring our soldiers and those who fell defending the country and the people, home.
“We will not cease until all those missing in action and whose place of burial is not known. Our commitment to our soldiers has always been, and will always be, a shining light. We go to battle together, and together we return from it.”
In a televised statement, Netanyahu described the mission as the essence of the Israeli spirit.
“This is one of the most moving moments of all my years as prime minister of Israel,” he said. “Zachary’s bones, which were brought to Israel, were identified with certainty. Next to them were his overalls and his tzitzit.
“The operation to return him to Israel is the ultimate expression of the mutual responsibility and comradeship that characterise us as a nation, as an army and as a country.”
Baumel went missing in action during a battle against Syrian troops at the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub close to the Lebanese-Syrian border.
He was believed to have been captured by enemy forces.
The Battle of Sultan Yacoub took place on the sixth day of the First Lebanon War, known in Israel is Operation Peace for Galilee.
Israel suffered 20 confirmed losses in the battle, as well as dozens of wounded. Six soldiers were unaccounted for, including Feldman, Baumel, and Katz.
The fates of the other soldiers were later discovered.
One was killed in the battle and buried in Syria, his body returned to Israel after the war, another was captured by the Syrians and freed two years later, the third was captured by a terrorist organisation and freed via a prisoner exchange deal three years later.
The families of Katz and Feldman were informed Baumel’s remains had been located.
Relatives of IDF navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared during a mission over Lebanon in 1986, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, missing since the 2014 war with Hamas, were also told.
By David Saffer