Within minutes of stepping into the battered Hyundai i35 on the night of June 12, Israeli teens Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrach knew they were in trouble.
The three teenagers were squished into the backseat of the vehicle, which had picked them up in the southern West Bank’s Alon Shvut junction, just feet away from a nearby military base. It was just past 10 p.m. at night, and the three were making their way home to their homes in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. They rang their parents to say they were hitching a ride, as they often did. But then, within minutes of entering the car, one of them managed to make a two-minute phone call to police at the local Kiriyat Arba police station, and in hushed tones said, “We’ve been kidnapped.”
“They knew immediately what had happened to them,” said Yoav, one of two Israeli army officers involved in the kidnapping case who spoke to BuzzFeed on condition he be quoted with only his first name since many of the details are still under gag order. “They got into the car after 10 p.m., and at 10:25 they called police.”
The local officer on call, however, didn’t pass on the information about a possible kidnapping to his superiors for hours, and gave up trying to re-dial the cell phone after eight attempts. By the time anyone more senior had been notified, the three teens were dead.
“We don’t know yet what led the kidnappers to shoot the teens. But we know it happened quickly, within hours, maybe within an hour, of when they were taken,” said a second Israeli officer involved with the case. “They were shot. There was no chance they could survive.”
Previously under gag order were details that a shot could be heard in the background of the phone call to police, and that forensic evidence found in the Hyundai indicated that there had been foul play.
“We have been operating, for some time now, with evidence that these boys were killed,” said the officer in Hebron. “It is with a heavy heart that we realized we were looking for bodies.”
The Hyundai, which was abandoned, torched, in the Palestinian city of Hebron, shows that the three teens were shot at close range inside the car. The kidnappers then moved their bodies to a second vehicle, which they drove approximately 10 minutes down the road to an empty field in the north of the city.
“They buried one of the bodies further down, and the other two a bit more to the top. Maybe they were hurrying. They tried to hide the burial sight with rocks,” said Yoav. “They did this at night, when no one could see them.”
By morning, a massive manhunt was underway. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to comb the area, and arrest any person suspected of involvement in the kidnapping. But it wasn’t until more than two weeks later, on Monday at 5 p.m., that a group of volunteers and IDF soldiers found the makeshift grave.
“They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by animals,” Netanyahu told his security cabinet Monday, as Israeli media announced that the bodies of the three teens had been found. “In the name of the whole of Israel, I ask to tell the dear families — to the mothers, the fathers, the grandmothers and the grandfathers, the brothers and sisters — our hearts are bleeding, the whole nation is crying with them.”
In a later statement, Netanyahu said, “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.”
Israeli intelligence officials, however, remained divided over whether Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha — two men named as wanted suspects behind the kidnapping — had direct ties to Hamas. The Qawasmeh family, one of the better-known families in Hebron, had recently distanced itself from Hamas.
“What we do know, is that this was likely an opportunistic move. The men behind this may have ties to a larger terror group, but this does not have the markings of a well-planned, complex operation,” one Israeli officer, based in the West Bank, told BuzzFeed earlier this month.
In Hebron, local residents who knew the families of the suspects expressed doubt that Hamas was responsible, especially after the Hamas’ senior leadership distanced itself from the kidnapping.
“That family, the Qawasmehs, often acted without the knowledge or signing-off of the senior Hamas leadership,” said Mahmoud Zabir, a Palestinian resident of Hebron who knows the family well. “They were considered troublemakers, even by Hamas.”
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas spoke to European and American officials Monday night, and expressed his sorrow over the death of the three teens. He called for an end to the violence, and asked that no action be taken until those responsible for the kidnapping were found.
On Monday night, hardline Jewish settlement groups called for Price Tag attacks against Palestinian areas in revenge against the deaths of the three teens. Israeli police said they had increased their presence in volatile areas, including in the area of the Hebron where the two suspects lived.
More than 240 Palestinians were arrested — most of them Hamas members — in the search for the two teens.
Israeli army jeeps and soldiers could be closing off streets around Hebron Monday evening.
“We are being told to stay indoors, it looks bad,” said Palestinian shopkeeper Ibrahim Mansoor, who lives just in Hebron. “We can see the Israeli soldiers from our windows, we can hear shooting and we are very worried that tonight will turn ugly.”
At least five Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in clashes with Israeli soldiers since the teens were kidnapped. An additional three Palestinians have been killed in air strikes in the Gaza Strip.
Many have expressed concern that the violence will now only escalate.