Almost 24 years after Zachary Baumel, an American-born Israeli soldier, went missing in action during the Lebanon war, his family has filed suit against the government of Syria for imprisoning their son and cutting off all contact with him.Baumel’s fate is unknown, but Dr. Stuart Ditchek, a childhood friend of Baumel’s in Brooklyn who has led the advocacy on his behalf, told The Jewish Week that the suit, believed to be the first such legal action against Syria, is an effort not to gain financially but to gain information about Baumel and seek his release, dead or alive.
“Working quietly behind the scenes with Syrian officials for ten years has not worked, so what do we have to lose?” he told The Jewish Week in acknowledging that Syria will be “agitated” by the lawsuit, filed this week at the U.S. District Court in Washington.He noted that it comes at a particularly sensitive time for Syria, as the U.S. has lost patience with the regime of President Bashar Assad, believed to be responsible for the car bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and accused of fostering terror against Israel through Hezbollah and hindering U.S. efforts in Iraq.
“We want to give them bad press at a bad time for them,” said Ditchek of Syria, which is considered a terrorist state by the U.S.“The time is now to use the stick” instead of the carrot, added the physician who attended school with Zachary until the Baumel family made aliyah in 1970.Yona Baumel, the father of the missing soldier, said that “over the years, a wealth of information has accrued that the Syrian government is directly responsible in this case.” Asserting that the goal was “to get access to the MIAs,” he said that “by hitting the Syrians where it hurts, in their pocketbooks, we hope to obtain positive results where all other methods have failed.”
The Baumel suit seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in “compensatory and punitive damages,” monies that Ditchek said would be used to elicit information about what happened to Baumel and other Israeli MIAs. The legal effort comes just days after about 50 Americans, victims of Palestinian terror in Israel over the last six years, filed multimillion dollar lawsuits in federal court in Brooklyn against three major international banks. The plaintiffs – survivors of the attacks or relatives of those killed—are charging that the banks helped provide funds to Hamas, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.Suits against foreign countries cannot be filed in the U.S., with the exception of those deemed to support terror. Several wrongful death suits involving U.S. citizens have been filed successfully against Iran, Ditchek said.
Zachary Baumel was 21 when he and two other Israeli soldiers were taken prisoner on June 11, 1982, and paraded through the streets of Damascus atop their disabled tank. Since then, Syria has refused to provide information regarding their whereabouts or condition. If the suit is successful in having Syrian assets frozen, it could be a major irritant to Syrian diplomats in the U.S., restricting their travel and efforts to rent apartments. Ditchek acknowledged that the lawsuit was a drastic measure, one that had been ruled out until now for fear that the Syrians could punish Baumel in retaliation. “But if he’s alive, we have to do dramatic things,” he said. “Treading softly is a failed policy.”