One Year After West Bank Murder-kidnapping: What Israel's Security Forces Got Wrong

New revelations on the mistakes that lined Israel's frantic search for three teenagers.

Reuters

One year after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage boys in the West Bank, a clearer picture has emerged of what happened that night, as well as the ensuing search for both the boys and the killers. And though media attention at the time focused on a snafu by a police hotline, mistakes by two other agencies – the Shin Bet security service and Israel Defense Forces – also contributed greatly to the delay in finding them.

The Shin Bet failed to detect the kidnapping plot in advance and missed the involvement of a third man in the scheme, even though all three perpetrators were well-known Hamas operatives. As for the IDF, it only began searching for the boys four hours after one of their fathers informed it that his son was missing.

A Haaretz investigation has found that the delay in solving the case stemmed largely from a misinterpretation of what happened during a 28-minute period when the kidnappers’ car stopped. Investigators wrongly assumed that the kidnappers had buried the bodies during this time, and that therefore the bodies must be nearby. Thus, the search focused mainly on this area.

Only later did they discover that the third man, Hussam Qawasmeh, had driven the bodies to a hiding place some three kilometers away. The bodies were found there, largely by chance, almost three weeks after the murder.

Had Qawasmeh’s involvement been discovered earlier, the bodies might have been as well, thereby easing the high tensions that contributed to sparking last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza. That war began about a week after the bodies were found.

On the night of Thursday, June 12, 2014, Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel were standing at a hitchhiking post near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. All three studied in the area. At about 10:20 P.M., a stolen car with Israeli license plates stopped and picked them up.

Since both the boys and the two kidnappers in the car are now dead, the defense establishment’s reconstruction of what happened is based on forensic evidence and the testimony of Hussam Qawasmeh, who heard the story from one of the kidnappers that same night.

The kidnappers, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, had planned to abduct only one person. But when the first teen – apparently Yifrah – beckoned the other two to join him, the kidnappers didn’t dare protest, since neither spoke Hebrew well, and they feared their accents would reveal them as Palestinians.

From that moment, the boys’ fate was probably sealed: Given the tight security control maintained by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the kidnappers would surely have known that keeping three live hostages hidden would be impossible.

The kidnappers told the boys they were going to Ashkelon, but a few minutes later, they made a U-turn back into the West Bank. At that moment, at 10:25 P.M., the boys realized they had been kidnapped, and Shaer called the police hotline, whispering, “They kidnapped me.”

But the hotline operator didn’t hear what he said, and after a return call to his cellphone wasn’t answered, police decided it had been a prank. They made no effort to find out who owned the phone and whether the owner was missing.

A subsequent analysis revealed that noises heard on the tape were the sound of shots fired at close range, meaning the murder took place while the hotline operator was listening. But police didn’t realize this at the time.

The mistakes, however, didn’t stop there. At 3:10 A.M., Shaer’s worried father reported his son missing to a settlement security hotline. That hotline operator called an army hotline half an hour later, and again at 5:06 A.M., but the soldiers on duty refused to wake their commanders. Only at about 6 A.M. was the Bethlehem Brigade commander informed, and only at 7:40 A.M. did a search begin, along with widespread arrests of Hamas operatives. These cumulative delays allowed the killers to escape.

Within a day, the Shin Bet had identified the kidnappers. On Friday, the morning after the abduction, PA police found the remains of their torched car near Dura, in the south Hebron hills, and gave it to Israel. Forensic analysis revealed that the teens were probably dead, but not definitely. So searches continued as if they were alive.

Fraenkel’s and Shaer’s cellphones had been turned off at 11:20 P.M. Thursday. Based on data from these cellphones and other intelligence, investigators concluded that the kidnappers’ car stopped near Beit Kahil, west of Halhul, for 28 minutes. They therefore assumed that the kidnappers buried the bodies nearby during this interval.

After carrying out a reenactment to determine how long it would have taken to remove the bodies from the car and bury them, they concluded that the bodies must be buried quite close to where the car stopped. The search therefore focused mainly, though not exclusively, on this area. Two weeks later, this assumption was strengthened when the searchers found Yifrah’s broken glasses.

In reality, the bodies were buried in an agricultural plot about three kilometers away, outside the primary search radius. They were finally found on June 30 because volunteer civilian searchers noticed that the earth in this plot had been recently disturbed.

A quick check revealed that the plot was hatched by Hussam Qawasmeh, a known Hamas operative. Only then did investigators realize that the kidnappers hadn’t acted alone. They later discovered that while the kidnappers did initially hide the bodies near Beit Kahil, Hussam Qawasmeh later transferred them in his jeep to the plot where they were found.

An IDF officer involved in the search told Haaretz that “in retrospect, it’s clear we should have considered other lines of investigation more seriously at an earlier stage.” But a senior defense official said there are “many dozens” of hard-core Hamas operatives in the Hebron area, so there was no particular reason to suspect Hussam Qawasmeh.

Hussam Qawasmeh comes from a true-believing Hamas family. He once spent eight years in an Israeli jail. One of his brothers, Mahmoud, was freed from an Israeli prison in the 2011 swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and deported to Gaza. Another is still jailed in Israel, and two others were killed in clashes with the IDF.

He told the Shin Bet that he first heard of the kidnapping plan from Marwan Qawasmeh, a distant relative, four or five months before it was carried out. He obtained money for it – 150,000 shekels ($39,000) – from his brother Mahmoud in Gaza, via a go-between who still hasn’t been caught.

With that money, he bought three M-16 rifles, the jeep, and the Israeli car. The latter was originally stolen from Tzur Hadassah, west of Jerusalem, but Hussam got it from a used-car dealer in Hebron for 6,500 shekels. Altogether, he met with Marwan five or six times before the kidnapping.

The plan was to kidnap one Israeli, hide him in Marwan’s barbershop in Hebron and then, a few days later, move him to Marwan’s aunt’s house in the city, which was empty, since his aunt lives in East Jerusalem. But their first attempt, made at 9 P.M. on Tuesday, June 10, failed; Marwan and Abu Aisheh didn’t find any hitchhikers to pick up. So when they tried again on June 12, they started out later, at 10 P.M.

Hussam initially thought this attempt had also failed. They had agreed that Marwan would leave a mark on a roadside sign in Hebron if he succeeded, and Hussam saw no mark. But at 1 A.M. on Friday, Marwan knocked on his door and said, “I’ve murdered three Jews.”

Hussam and Marwan gathered up digging equipment and got into the jeep. As they drove, Marwan told him what had happened – a story confirmed by forensic evidence. He said he had threatened the boys with a pistol to make them keep quiet, “but one made trouble,” so he shot them all. The reference was apparently to Shaer’s call to the police, though he didn’t mention this explicitly.

The two men transferred the bodies from the initial hiding place to Hussam’s agricultural plot. It was apparently during this transfer that Yifrah’s glasses were broken and fell by the side of a path. They stripped the boys and buried the clothes separately, in plastic bags.

At 6 A.M., when soldiers were just waking the commander of the Bethlehem Brigade, the perpetrators returned to Hebron. Marwan and Abu Aisheh hid in a sewage hole that another Hebron resident, Arafat Qawasmeh, showed them. Thanks to the police and army mishaps, they could move about freely; only some two hours later did the manhunt begin. Hussam, meanwhile, continued his normal life.

Eight days later, Marwan and Abu Aisheh visited Hussam again; they were tired of the sewage hole. He put them in touch with someone who found them a new hiding place.

Only after the bodies were found on Hussam’s land on June 30 did he himself shave off his beard and go underground; he said he had heard that the PA security services were investigating who owned the plot. But one day later, he got bored and went out for a stroll around Hebron. Later still, he went to stay with a relative in Anata, north of Jerusalem, where he felt safe enough to go out to eat in a restaurant. Only on the night of July 10 was he finally arrested.

The delay in identifying Hussam as the third kidnapper may also have stemmed from another factor: The Shin Bet was then at the height of another investigation into a major Hamas network in the West Bank, and the agency thought this network – headed by Riad Nasser of Deir Qadis, near Ramallah, but operating under orders from Saleh Arouri in Turkey – might have been involved in the kidnapping.

Nasser had been arrested in January 2014, and after the kidnapping occurred, he was questioned about it repeatedly. He denied any knowledge, but during the search for the missing teens, the IDF found a note with the words “the Hebron cell is ready,” and concluded that this referred to the Hebron branch of Nasser’s network. Thus, on June 19, a defense official told the media, “Our assessment is that Saleh Arouri is behind the kidnapping.”

Nasser continued to deny that his group had any involvement in the kidnapping, even when, on June 24, he was questioned using “special interrogation measures” (i.e. torture). But he did give information about dozens of other members of his network, none of whom were the three kidnappers. So eventually, the investigators realized he really wasn’t involved.

After the bodies were found, Arouri boasted about the kidnapping. But the defense establishment believes this was empty boasting, and that he had nothing to do with the plot.

Marwan Qawasmeh and Abu Aisheh weren’t found until September 23. They were killed in a shoot-out after soldiers besieged the Hebron carpentry shop where they were hiding.

The owner of the shop, Ghassan Qawasmeh, had been arrested three hours earlier. He told investigators he had bought vitamin D for the kidnappers but refused their request to install a television. He also said Marwan’s wife gave birth to a son while he was in hiding.

The two kidnappers switched hiding places several times in the three months after the abduction, though some of their acquaintances refused to help them for fear of being punished by Israel or the PA. It was their effort to obtain financial assistance that finally put the Shin Bet on their tracks.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the kidnappers hadn’t thought their plan through thoroughly. Their idea was to abduct one person and hide him for a few days, then make contact with senior Hamas operatives in the Hebron area and ask them to take charge of the hostage and use him to negotiate a prisoner swap with Israel. But in reality, it seems doubtful that any senior Hamas official would have been willing to take the risk, given the massive manhunt Israel and the PA were conducting.

Hussam Qawasmeh, the only kidnapper left alive, was convicted of murder in January and given three consecutive life sentences.