Revealed: Behind the Scenes on the Hunt to Find Kidnapped Teens

Police mishandling of a desperate call from one boy apparently allowed the kidnappers to flee but it’s doubtful the boys could have been saved, even had the hotline been more efficient.

Tomer Appelbaum

Monday's discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped teens enables publication of some of the information gathered during the 19 days they were missing and confirms the hypothesis formed early on: that the teens were murdered shortly after they were abducted.

The police hotline’s mishandling of a desperate call from one boy delayed the resolution of the case and apparently allowed the kidnappers to flee. But it’s doubtful the boys could have been saved, even had the hotline been more efficient.

Most of the information was amassed in the first few days after the kidnapping. It came partly from intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet security service and other intelligence agencies. But until last night, none of this information sufficed to locate the bodies. Ultimately, they were found by combing the area where the Shin Bet believed they had been dumped.

This legwork accomplished what intelligence could not. The bodies, which were found about three kilometers west of Halhul, were only partly concealed, apparently because the kidnappers were in a hurry to escape.

The teens were kidnapped at about 10 P.M. on Thursday, June 12, while standing at a hitchhiking post near Kfar Etzion and hoping for a ride home from the schools where they studied. The kidnappers, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, arrived in a Hyundai and the three teens got in.

Soon afterward, however, the car apparently made a U-turn. At 10:25 P.M., one of the teens called the hotline of the police’s West Bank district and whispered, “They’ve kidnapped me.” But the hotline operator didn’t hear what was said.

The hotline operator told two of her superiors about the call, but both, after listening to it, thought it was either a false alarm or a prank. Hotline staffers called Shaar’s cellphone eight times, but got no answer. They didn’t bother checking who owned the phone or whether his family had lost contact with him.

As a result, the security services lost five precious hours, until Shaar’s father arrived at the Modi’in police station from his hometown of Talmon at about 3:30 A.M. on Friday and reported him missing. But the police and army didn’t really start searching for him until about 8 A.M.

Early Friday morning, Palestinian firefighters found the torched Hyundai about 15 kilometers south of the location where the bodies were later found. When the Palestinians reported their discovery, the search for the teens had already begun, so investigators made the connection.

After the Palestinian Authority handed over the car to Israeli authorities later that day, investigators were able to get a better picture of what happened.

A search of the vehicle yielded other significant findings, including a shell. Investigators also found indications of more bullets, which reinforced the assessment (coupled with the audio from the call) that the teens were harmed. However, signs of blood were not clear enough due to the fire, which was one of the reasons that investigators didn't determine that all three teens were killed.

As time passed with no word from the kidnappers, the assessment that the boys had been killed shortly after the abduction strengthened. It was further reinforced by comparisons with previous abductions.

Lacking conclusive evidence, the prime minister and defense minister opted not to declare the boys dead. But some efforts were made to dampen the public’s hopes, as when Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz said a week ago that the more time passes, the more he fears for the boys’ lives.

It is likely that suspects Marwan Qawasameh and Amer Abu Aisheh preferred to kidnap two hitchhikers. It could be that Eyal Yifrach's presence surprised them and assuming they didn't have a good command of Hebrew, it's possible they feared their identity would be exposed if they spoke in length to them, such that they preferred to remain quiet and let the three board the car. A short time later, the teens suspected something and called the police. The kidnappers may have noticed and decided to shoot them on the spot.

Within days of the kidnapping, investigators knew roughly what had happened and where the bodies had probably been dumped. But lacking precise intelligence, all they could do was scour the area until the bodies were found.