For two decades Miriam and Yona Baumel have suffered while they held onto the belief that their son was alive. Zachary Baumel, a member of an Israeli tank crew, disappeared during a 1982 battle against the Syrian army in Lebanon.
Last week that belief was reinforced when the Baumels received information from a "top-notch" source that Zachary indeed was alive and transferred from Damascus to Lebanon.
"He said it was recent information," Yona Baumel said of the source, adding that the transfer was believed to have been made within the last three weeks.
That would have been about the time that Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
The Baumels said they were told during a May 15 meeting in Washington with a State Department official that Powell had questioned Assad about Baumel and was told Assad would look into the matter.
"It has been raised on numerous occasions" with the Syrians, Yona Baumel told The Jewish Week during an interview at the newspaper’s Times Square offices. "Once Assad’s father [the late Syrian President Hafez Assad] told [then-Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright that the time wasn’t right" to discuss it further.
But the Baumels, former Brooklyn residents who now live in Jerusalem, say now is the right time for the U.S. to press Syria. They point to President George W. Bush’s displeasure with Syria for having harbored Iraqi officials and supplying Iraqi soldiers with military equipment to fight American troops.
"There is more of a possibility now that Syria would want to do something to appease the Americans," Yona Baumel said. "The U.S. wants Syria to stop supporting terrorist organizations, and one way to show [it has changed] is to provide information about the MIAs."
Citing speculation that Israel was preparing to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as a sign of good will toward the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, Miriam Baumel said this would be a "good time to bring up" the release of her son and other Israelis believed held by Israel’s neighbors.
She noted that an outside investigator hired by the Israeli military to investigate Zacharyís fate has concluded that he was captured alive after the tank battle on June 11, 1982.
In an April 29 letter to the Baumels, Israeli Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz wrote that Zachary is still listed as missing in action and therefore is regarded as "alive until such time that there is proof to the contrary."
Asked what life has been like all these years, Miriam Baumel said: "It’s frightening. What is it like in captivity?"
Yona Baumel added: "You wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘What the hell is happening to him?’"