The terrorist kidnapping of three teens puts Israel on edge

When three young sons of Israel disappear overnight, life is put on hold for everybody.

Yeshiva students Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16 — the last of whom holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship — were kidnapped the night of June 12 while hitchhiking home in advance of Shabbat. The three were traveling through the West Bank from religious school in Kfar Etzion, an Israeli settlement.

The last time anyone heard from the boys was when one of them called police from the back of the abduction vehicle at 10:30 p.m. “We’ve been kidnapped,” he reportedly whispered before the line cut out.

Since then, only silence. And in this painful silence, a mess of rumors, fears and prayers has overtaken the area of their abduction.

[The kidnapping dilemma: The three kidnapped teens. Family photos via Reuters.

Gush Etzion Mayor Davidi Perl, in an interview at the entrance to Kfar Etzion, explained that hitchhiking “is part of our life. We live in a distant place; it’s part of our culture. … I’m sure people will be much more be careful now, but there are no other options.”

As Anshel Pfeffer wrote recently in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “For mitzvah-observant adolescents who have been going to gender-segregated schools since before puberty, there are few places where they can feel as free and as unregulated as on the road. And for them, the roads of Judea and Samaria — the West Bank — are not the dangerous, ominous regions they seem to most Israelis. To them it’s home, and no one, certainly not the IDF officers who periodically warn the settlement elders of the perils of allowing their children to hitch rides, will tell them they can’t travel freely throughout their homeland. Trempim to them aren’t just a way of getting around — they’re a rite of passage, a way of life, a declaration of independence and of ownership of the land.”

Sefi Appel, a young man waiting for a ride outside Kfar Etzion on Sunday, spoke to the Journal with apparent reluctance, holding down his kippah in the wind. “You don’t expect something like this,” he said of the kidnapping. “But you don’t change your whole life either. This is our home — this is where we live.”

Suspicion and misinformation ran through the pale yellow hills of the southern West Bank that surround Gush Etzion on Sunday — the third day of a sweeping search party for Israel’s lost boys. That morning, Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank and one of the epicenters of the Israel-Palestine conflict — thanks in part to its tightly embedded Jewish settlement, Kiryat Arba — had been surrounded and closed off by IDF soldiers.

A riled-up crowd of residents and Arabic-language news crews immediately gathered at the new blockade of the main road into Hebron.

Yosef Abu Yosef, a 39-year-old Palestinian father whose house overlooks the blockade, insisted of the abductees: “They’re soldiers, not kids,” and that although “no one knows” who took the boys, he and other town residents believe it may be a political game engineered by the Israeli government. (Earlier in the day, a group of cab drivers in Bethlehem told the Journal they didn’t trust anything either Israeli or Palestinian officials said about the abduction. “All I know is this is no good for Israel and no good for Palestine,” said one cabbie named Ahmed.)

On the other side of the blockade, Akaram Manasaare, a Palestinian doctor who had peeled up in his sedan, shouted at a young Israeli soldier in English. “I am a doctor. I’m the only eye surgeon here. We can enter in no other way!” he said.

When the soldier replied — also in English — that it was his responsibility to seal off the area, and that he couldn’t just let in every person who claimed he had an emergency, Manasaare yelled back, waving one hand wildly: “Look, my face is not a rural one! My face is a doctor’s!”

Palestinians watch as an Israeli soldier patrols near the West Bank City of Hebron on June 18. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

A couple of residents inside Hebron said they hadn’t felt a grip on the city this tight since the Second Intifada a decade ago. And a slow trickle of Jewish settlers visiting Hebron’s fenced downtown synagogue — guarded by seven soldiers — did seem as emotionally charged as in times of war.

Yigal Dvas, a 17-year-old hauling water to the synagogue, said in Hebrew that he hoped hundreds of Arabs would die every hour that the boys were gone. (An older man helping translate told him this wasn’t a very nice thing to tell a reporter, but the teen stuck with it.)

A pack of three more teenage settlers who had come from Kiryat Arba to pray for the kidnapped students were more subtle with their wording, but just as resolute. Eliyahu Duhan, 18, who said his father was murdered by Arabs 14 years ago, explained: “We are very angry right now. We hope they will find the terrorists and kill them.”

The IDF and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed early on that terrorists affiliated with Hamas, the organization that currently runs Gaza and recently signed a cooperation agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, was behind the kidnapping. Hamas has repeatedly denied these claims. By the morning of June 17, the IDF had arrested more than 200 alleged Hamas affiliates in Hebron and surrounding cities.

The IDF’s PR team, as systematic as its troops, wrote on the official army blog that soldiers had “searched the streets and entered the houses of Judea and Samaria,” and — in Hebron, in particular — were darting “between alleys, on top of houses and through the city’s markets” in pursuit of the lost boys.

Witnesses described a huge explosion in Hebron overnight during one of the arrests; another clash between soldiers and civilians in Ramallah ended in the death of a young Palestinian man. Palestinian activists quickly started their own #BringBackOurBoys social media campaign, but with photos of jailed Palestinian boys in place of the three kidnapped Israelis.

Media reports on reactions to the kidnapping — mainly drawing on Internet activism — have highlighted extremists on both sides. The Jewish boys’ now-famous faces got the iconic Shepard Fairey treatment for a Facebook campaign urging Israel to kill a Palestinian terrorist every hour until the Jewish boys are returned home. (The page as of press time had almost 20,000 “likes.”) And the IDF has been documenting frightening, anti-Semitic memes on the other side, including one that depicts the boys as three trapped rats.

Reactions on the ground were more nuanced. The handful of Palestinians interviewed by the Journal, instead of celebrating this new bargaining chip, seemed worried about what it would mean for their freedom of movement and daily Israeli-Palestinian relations in the West Bank. 

Araji Sabatin, a Palestinian factory worker at the Beitar Illit settlement who was passing through Gush Etzion on June 15, had been blocked from entering his workplace that day. “It’s a problem for both sides,” he said. “[Now] it’s too difficult for us to make jobs with Israelis. We can’t go to the settlements to make work.”

Of the kidnapping, he said: “I don’t know how it will end. I hope [the boys] will get back to their family. If something happens to them, it’s bad for all of us.”

Back in Jerusalem’s Old City that Sunday, a group of teenage girls had arrived at the Western Wall on a school trip to pray for the boys’ safe return. Hodaia, only 14 years old, said: “We are praying for them to come back home and that they will be together, not separate. And that Israel doesn’t give back people that kill” in a prisoner exchange. Her classmate Etsi, also 14, added: “I pray the people that took them don’t hurt them.”

Israelis take part in a mass prayer at the Western Wall for the return of three teenagers who were abducted. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Later that night, a crowd of 25,000 would gather at the Wall to pray for the abducted Israelis in a stunning ceremony. The rest of the country watched in shared agony as Iris Yifrach, mother to kidnapped Eyal Yifrach, addressed her son, held in some unknown terror cell somewhere, on Israeli TV: “The Jewish people are praying for you — look at the beauty of the Jewish people. Hug Gilad and Naftali tightly. You are strong for them and for all of us. Our heart is torn, broken, but even so, the heart believes, believes that you will return home safely, in good health.”

A female soldier sitting near the Wall also spoke of the boys to the Journal — anonymously, as she was in uniform. “Israeli solidarity is one of the best strategies we have as a country,” she said.

“Others see it from the outside, but we feel it from the inside. It’s like they’re us.”