More than 36 hours after three Israeli teenage yeshiva students went missing in the West Bank, the country is asking many questions: Who was behind the apparent kidnapping, where they are being held, or if they are even still alive.
No one is questioning why they were hitchhiking late at night on a highway frequented by many Palestinians. It's a common practice among Israeli settlers, especially teens, driven not only by perhaps a lack of patience or time to wait for the next bus but also a pioneer ethos fueled by faith and an unswerving belief in their right to this land. Most Israeli settlers are unwilling to be held hostage by fear of their Palestinian neighbors or by the United Nations, which has deemed their presence here illegal under international law.
“[Hitchhiking] is what we’ve done since age 0,” said Naama, a young woman who lives two minutes away from the Mekor Chaim yeshiva where the missing teens study, located about half an hour south of Jerusalem in the Israeli settlement of Kfar Etzion.
Well past midnight, Naama – in Jerusalem for Shabbat with her grandparents – was sitting alone in a white plastic chair on the mostly deserted Western Wall plaza, considered the holiest place in Judaism, after hundreds who gathered to pray for the teens last night had gone home. Only a few hoarse shouts of prayer mingled with the throbbing of crickets.
“It touches us, it hurts everyone,” she said, her eyes red. “We hate Arabs because of this.”
Almost no details about the presumed kidnapping have been released amid furious efforts to find the teens, whom the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) identified as Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel, and Gilad Shaar, all in their late teens. But it is widely assumed that Palestinians – perhaps from Hamas, or a militant group inspired by the same Islamist terrorist organization sweeping Iraq – were behind their disappearance. Israeli security forces have conducted massive sweeps around Hebron, a major Palestinian city about 15 minutes south of the boys’ yeshiva, where a burnt car was found early Friday morning and is being investigated for a possible connection to the kidnapping.
The incident highlights fears and frustrations on both sides, with Israelis deeply concerned about the security ramifications of Hamas rejoining the Palestinian government based in the West Bank, and Palestinians backing almost 300 prisoners on hunger strike due to Israel’s practice of holding them without charge for six months or longer.
With Israel’s track record of releasing Palestinian prisoners for kidnapped soldiers, such as the swap of 1,027 prisoners for Sgt. Gilad Shalit in 2011, many Palestinians advocate the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers or civilians as bargaining chips for justice.
Just yesterday, a senior Islamic Jihad official in Gaza, Khaled al-Batash, told worshipers in a Friday sermon that “kidnapping soldiers is the only way to free prisoners.” He instructed Palestinians in the West Bank to “cause trouble and disrupt settlers’ meeting points so that Israel understands that it isn’t just one side that is suffering.”
“We know that kidnapping is a serious, serious threat posed by Palestinian terror organizations operating in the West Bank,” says an IDF spokeswoman. While she wouldn’t confirm that those missing had been hitchhiking, she admitted that in general the practice “very much makes it easier for kidnapping to occur.”
While Israeli soldiers are forbidden by law from hitchhiking, whether in uniform or not, the practice is otherwise unregulated by the IDF or the state, leaving it to parents to strike a balance between alerting their children to the risks while still allowing them to grow up without a persistent sense of fear.
“You don’t want to close your children in a cage, you don’t want them to be cowards … at the same time you have to educate them to be careful and to watch their steps,” says Noam Arnon, a father of eight who lives in a Jewish settlement in the middle of Hebron. “We try at least to convince them to take security measures when they hitchhike.”
Known as “trampim,” Israeli hitchhikers can frequently be seen in clumps at bus stops or major intersections. The standard practice is for drivers to pull up and say where they are going, giving the hitchhikers the chance to listen for an accent or other suspicious cues before disclosing their destination.
But despite such precautions, as settlers gathered in synagogues across the West Bank to usher in Shabbat, saying psalms for the three boys and their families and exchanging what few bits of information they’d heard, there was a widespread feeling that it could have happened to any of them.
“The whole country is praying for them,” said a young girl leaving the Western Wall plaza, as the wrenching cries of a prominent rabbi and his few disciples followed her into the night.