Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Barak Ravid and Eli Ashkenazi
12 August 09
Israel has begun a quiet diplomatic campaign to learn the whereabouts of a soldier who went missing from the Golan Heights 12 years ago. The process began when Japan's Middle East envoy delivered a message to Syria for Israel.
It is not even clear if the soldier, Guy Hever, is in Syria, but the move represents a significant change in Israel's official policy in the case.
About two weeks ago, the missing soldier's mother, Rina Hever, met with Foreign Ministry director general Yossi Gal. During the meeting Ms. Hever, whose previous attempts to get the Foreign Ministry to find her son have reportedly met with limited success, asked Gal to raise the subject with the Syrians through a third party.
After the meeting, Gal issued directives that the case be presented as a humanitarian issue to foreign officials visiting Jerusalem and then Damascus. The ministry also prepared a background paper on Hever's disappearance to be given to any foreign diplomat visiting Syria.
Last week Gal met in Jerusalem with Japan's peace envoy to the Middle East, Yutuka Iimura, who continued to Damascus for high-level meetings. Gal asked Iimura to transmit a message to senior Syrian officials asking for information on the fate of the missing soldier as a humanitarian gesture.
Iimura gave the message to Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus on Monday, and Tuesday Japanese diplomats delivered the Syrians' response to Israel.
A senior Israeli official said Israel had made a few approaches to Syria on the matter in the past, but this was the first time clear directives for action had been handed down. "It has been decided to deal intensively with the matter, and this is a significant change in emphasis," the official said.
Hever, born in 1977, left his Golan Heights artillery base on Sunday, August 17, 1997, at 9:30 A.M., wearing his uniform and carrying his rifle. He has not been heard from since. For several years his disappearance was treated as a police matter; only after his family forced the issue did the Israel Defense Forces begin treating the case as that of a missing soldier.
One possible scenario is that Hever left his base after a disagreement with his commanding officer and fell or jumped off a cliff in the Golan. Another possibility, raised mainly by the family, is that the soldier crossed the border into Syria and is being held captive there.
In addition to intelligence-gathering efforts, the police have been combing the Golan Heights for traces of Hever since 2005, focusing on reservoirs and minefields. They have also dredged a segment of the Jordan River. A woman resident of the Golan said she saw Hever at Katzabiya junction in the eastern Golan Heights. Other sightings placed Hever in the Galilee city of Carmiel and in the town of Rosh Pina in the Hula Valley.
In 2006, the Born to Freedom foundation offered a $10 million reward for reliable information about Hever's whereabouts, as well as information on missing airman Ron Arad and the soldiers missing in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon. The foundation put up posters in Druze villages and launched a campaign in the Arab world.
In February 2007, a previously unknown Syrian group, Resistance Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights, released a statement suggesting that it was holding Hever captive in Syria and that it would return him in exchange for Druze prisoners being held by Israel. But security officials who investigated the claim found it without merit.
In April 2008, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter delivered a picture of Hever to Syrian President Bashar Assad and asked him to look into whether the soldier was being held in Syria.
The Web site of the IDF's unit for locating missing soldiers notes that "on the international level, the soldier's family and military officials have met with security and diplomatic officials in Israel and around the world, with the Red Cross and with UN officials. The IDF and police have also searched using advanced technological methods, focusing mainly on the Golan Heights."