Zecharia Baumel was killed in one the most needless and stupid battles of the First Lebanon War, a war full of many such battles.
Baumel, a young reservist, was made a false sacrifice by the Government of Israel on the altar of the hallucinatory concept of controlling Lebanon. The government owes him an apology, and must ask his pardon. It is hard to believe that the belated transfer of the remains of his body to Israel merits the title of apology; let us, then, begin this discussion with the old burial prayer: “I hereby ask of pardon and forgiveness. Everything we did was for your honor, according with the tradition of Yisrael. Go in peace, and rest in peace.”
One does not fight the dead. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never shall they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.
But as for fighting those who misuse them – well, that’s quite a different matter.
Let’s begin with the facts. Baumel, a tank commander, was killed on June 11, 1982 in the Battle of Sultan Yaakub, in which an Israeli division managed to stumble into an ambush by Syrian commando forces. While it was known he was killed, his body – and that of two of his comrades – was never recovered. As is customary in the Middle East, the victors who held the battlefield (in this case, the Syrians and some Palestinian militias) took the bodies in the hope of one day parlaying them into some advantage. Baumel’s destroyed tank was driven through the streets of Damascus in a ghoulish triumph; in 1993, Yasser Arafat presented Yizhak Rabin with one half of Baumel’s dog tags. Obviously someone else was holding the other half, in anticipation of some reward.
(The Syrians and the Palestinians aren’t alone in this. Israel has a whole graveyard, The Graveyard of the Enemy Dead, where bodies are kept until their time on the market comes.)
A week or two ago, Russian troops acting with Syrian troops transferred secretly to Israel the contents of a whole graveyard from the Yarmuq Refugee Camp, which the Syrians have taken from some militia. The Russians claimed it was held by some ISIS affiliate, but one should be careful about such Russian claims. Be that as it may, on Wednesday the Israeli public was surprised to hear that the IDF has conducted “an intelligence operation,” as a result of which the bodily remains of Baumel were identified.
The IDF and Netanyahu’s office bombarded the media with news of an “operation”, colonels with initials instead of names spoke of their part in the glorious operation, and everyone blessed Military Intelligence.
Nobody said anything about Russians. In fact, military censorship forbade any mention of Russian involvement, at first.
Given this partial information, my first horrified thought was “Oh my God, the fuckers did it again.”
Israel has developed an obsession with its war dead – an obsession which became deeper as the country had no actual wars. In godforsaken 2004, the only good of which could be said was that it was better than 2006, I was duty editor – twice – when Gazans blew up a tank and Armored Personnel Carrier. One was in the middle of the Strip; the other was near the Egyptian border, in a thin strip called Philadelphy Route.
There isn’t much left when a tank blows up.
Nevertheless, IDF brass gave the order, and soldiers obeyed, that the area near the explosions is to be combed – literally combed – in search after body remains. Soon I was watching IDF soldiers crawling in the dust, looking for the remains of their comrades.
Which killed at least one soldier.
Now, I have no problem with the Palestinian militiamen who blew up tanks and fired at enemy soldiers. War is war. If you’re carrying a gun in an occupied territory, you’re basically asking for it. I served for two years in Gaza, during the First Intifada. I insisted then that if some Palestinian would shoot me, that would certainly be annoying, but I would not bear a grudge, nor should anyone bear one in my name. It was my choice to serve in an occupied territory and carry a gun.
I did have a huge problem with the military – and the Israeli public. See, normally an army is supposed to take the shots instead of the civilians. But during the horrid years of the Second Intifada, the pyramid was reversed. The number of dead soldiers was relatively low, but the number of dead civilians hit the roof.
And the civilians seem to like it that way. The general sentiment was that it’s pretty bad if a bus blows up, but it’s much worse if a tank blows up. Military lives were deemed to be of more importance than civilian life. And this attitude moved from dead soldiers to pieces of dead soldiers. I was appalled at the fact the order to crawl under fire to get some body parts met with no refusal from the soldiers; and the general public seemed to think this was perfectly normal.
That is, we had a whole new pyramid. At its base were civilian life; they counted for little. Above them, soldiers’ lives. They mattered more. And then, at the apex, soldiers’ bodies. It seemed totally reasonable to risk the lives of soldiers in order to get soldiers’ body parts. I was not sure who lost his mind, me or the country.
That was bloody 2004. Then came fucking 2006. The Lebanon War began when Hizbullah fired a rocket at military vehicle which was moseying about near the Lebanon border. Two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were killed on the spot. Hizbullah hijacked the bodies and were gone with them before the IDF understood what happened. The fool commanding the division, Gal Hirsch (he’s running for the Knesset in the “Shield of Israel” party, his chances non-existent), ordered a tank to guard the destroyed vehicle. Hizbullah destroyed the tank. The number of dead was now eight, and once the Chief of Staff sold his shares portfolio, the war started.
The IDF and the PM (then Ehud Olmert) pretended Goldwasser and Regev were alive, even though IDF forensics knew they were dead a few hours after the rocket attack. When a rocket hits a vehicle, there isn’t much left of the soldiers. There was enough blood on the spot to know Goldwasser and Regev were dead. Olmert and the army took the country to war on false pretenses: they claimed they were alive and promised to get them back.
When it all ended, thousands of dead and unknown number of traumas later, Hizbullah negotiated for the bodies. Natch. Israel gave almost all of its Hizbullah captives. The government, which was in serious trouble at the time – one poll showed Olmert with 2% support, versus Hizbullah’s leader Nasrallah, with 4% – did its best to convince the public there’s a chance Goldwasser and Regev are alive, in order for the deal to pass. The media ate it up.
Of course, they were dead and Olmert knew it for months. When the Hizbullah truck opened and two coffins were brought out, with the Hizbullah representative sadistically crying, “Here they are!”, the country went into shock.
And it still supported the deal. After all, dead soldiers are more important than living soldiers.
So, when the news came of Baumel’s body being brought to burial, I found myself hoping: not again, not again, no more risking of lives over dead bodies.
The next day (Thursday), Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow. A Russian honor guard presented Netanyahu with a coffin draped in an Israeli flag and supposed to contain Baumel’s combat tank suit and boots.
Somebody fucked up badly, because an IDF colonel spoke the night before of examining Baumel’s combat suit, in Israel, and of the meticulous care he and his unit – never identified – had taken of making certain it was indeed Baumel’s suit. I guess someone forgot to update the Russians; either that, or this was one of Putin’s little jokes.
In short, the whole affair was a propaganda stunt from start to finish. The point was to portray Netanyahu, five days before the elections, as someone who can bring dead soldiers home. Which is precisely how the media played it: “bringing the son home.”
But Baumel is dead, has been dead for 37 years, life ending in a dreadful last hour and a semi-second of a flash. The officers who sent him – and 19 of his comrades – to a pointless death were not punished; the politician who sent the army there, Ariel Sharon, overcame that debacle and became a prime minister. And now the remains of Baumel are being used in a cynical ploy to ensure Netanyahu’s reelection. A trick which might just work: after all, dead soldiers are more important than live soldiers, who in turn are more important than live civilians.
We have badly misused you, Zecharia Baumel. Rest now in peace. We beg your forgiveness, and perhaps not everything we did was for your honor. Beg mercy for us, for we shall need it.