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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

How Russia Views the Return of Israeli MIA Zachariah Baumel’s Body

Filed under: Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Russia

How Russia Views the Return of  Israeli MIA Zachariah Baumel’s Body
Sergeant Zachariah Baumel

The body of Israeli soldier Sergeant Zachariah Baumel who was killed 37 years ago in Lebanon was returned to the Jewish State on April 3, 2019. Shortly before, on Monday, April 1, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a visit to Moscow and talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As it turned out, these two events had a direct connection.

Russia handed over to Israel the remains of Baumel, who died in 1982 in a battle near the village of Sultan Yacoub. Putin said that the Israeli soldier had long been considered missing, and searches had been going on for decades. The remains of the soldier were found on the territory of the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov place roses on the casket containing Zachariah Baumel’s remains
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov place roses on the casket containing Zachariah Baumel’s remains. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The search for missing IDF soldiers was carried out after agreements were concluded between Russia and Israel two years ago. Search operations continued despite the crisis between the two countries after Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian surveillance plane during an Israeli air strike against Iran’s positions in the Arab republic in September 2018.

Putin informed his Israeli colleague about the details of the operation to search for the remains of the IDF MIAs.

“I must say that for the Russian Special Forces group that was engaged in this, it was not easy. But I ask you to convey the warmest words to the relatives of this soldier,” Putin stressed.1

Netanyahu also took part in a ceremony at the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. The coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag was carried by soldiers of the Presidential Regiment, an elite unit guarding the Moscow Kremlin and participating as the Guard of Honor at protocol events at the highest state level. The Israeli Prime Minister was accompanied at the funeral ceremony by the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Army General Valery Gerasimov. With this, Russia rendered the highest military honors to the dead soldier of the IDF.

The Importance of Missing-in-Action Soldiers

Armies around the world have a sacred bond with their soldiers. A soldier who gives his life for his homeland must be buried on his land. In Russia, the notion of a “hero who died for his homeland” is sacred. Every year in Russia, thousands of volunteers search for soldiers who fell defending their homeland from the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II). Thus, the aspirations of the Israelis to return the bodies of their soldiers found a positive response in Russia. Russians are equally grateful for the honor paid to Soviet soldiers killed by the Nazis at Israel’s Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Israel plans to open a memorial in Jerusalem for the defenders of Leningrad during World War II, and Russia’s Putin plans to attend.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Netanyahu is one of the most frequent visitors among the heads of state who traveled to Russia in recent history. This visit was his sixteenth.2 Despite the difficult background between the two countries, relations between the countries are friendly. Since the beginning of the Russian search operation in Syria, there has been close contact between the Russian army and the IDF. Even the fatal September incident with the IL-20M plane in which 15 Russians were killed was quickly smoothed out. Now, with the revelation of continuing Russian searches for IDF MIA soldiers in Syria, it is clear that the partnership is maintained.

Sergeant Baumel died during the First Lebanon War in 1982. The USSR, which existed in those years, condemned the activities of Israel in the struggle against the “Palestinian people’s liberation fighting.” Years later, even as Israel attacks Iranian targets in Syria, Russia declares, “The security of Israel is one of the main priorities of our policy in the Middle East”3 and “Israel’s right to protect its national security is unquestionable.”4

In both countries, there is similar criticism about the UN’s double standard and interpretation of international law.5, 6 While anti-Semitism and the BDS movement grow in the United States and Europe, in Russia the level of anti-Semitism is decreasing.7 The April 4, 2019, events confirmed that Russia has moved quite far from its anti-Israel and anti-Semitic past.

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