How I Hunted Down a Settler Who Vanished After Killing a Palestinian

Yehoshua Elitzur was a German Catholic who studied design in Italy, and ended up converting to Judaism, moving to an Israeli settlement, killing a man – and then disappearing. My years-long mission to find him took me as far as Brazil

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Yehoshua Elitzur reenacting the killing of Palestinian Sael al-Shatiya, at the scene of the crime.
Yehoshua Elitzur reenacting the killing of Palestinian Sael al-Shatiya, at the scene of the crime. Credit: Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman

It was in the summer of 2010 that I first heard about Yehoshua Elitzur, from the settlement of Itamar, near Nablus, who had been convicted in 2005 of killing a Palestinian, Sael A-Shatiya. I was working for Haaretz at the time. An editor suggested that I interview one of the victim’s relatives in the village of Salem, also in the Nablus area. There I met Yasmin, Shatiya’s daughter. Her story left me deeply troubled. I didn’t want it to end with one more article about negligence and injustice that would run on the inside pages of the paper. I wanted to give her story a different ending.

That’s what got me started on my search for Elitzur, who had escaped from house arrest before his sentencing. Subsequently a host of additional motivations led me to lurk near houses in which he was suspected to be hiding, search garbage cans, become manipulative, lie unblinkingly and even cynically exploit the memory of the Holocaust. In the course of this search, I also resorted to a variety of other investigative methods that might be considered questionable. But I wanted to catch Elitzur. For five years, that was the central mission in my life.

Some people called it an obsession; for me it was an unresolved personal affair. There wasn’t a night during that period that I didn’t go to sleep without being vexed by the question of where the hell he was hiding. I wanted to nab him, and fast. Ah, yes, no less important: I also wanted to make a documentary about all this.

Even today, after the completion of my long saga of hunting him down, and after making the film “Chasing Yehoshua,” I can’t say definitively why Elitzur, 33 at the time, fired a bullet at the Palestinian taxi driver on that hot September day in 2004. (“Chasing Yehoshua,” which was produced by Assaf Amir, of Norma Productions, and is set to be screened on Friday, May 31, at the Docaviv-Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, and will be broadcast on the Yes Docu channel on June 5.) Judge David Rosen wrote in his verdict that Elitzur opened fire “for no reasonable cause,” because “he drew his strength from his weapon” and that “without the weapon in his hand he would not have considered acting as he did.”

Sael A-Shatiya with his daughter.

Indeed, Elitzur himself never succeeded in providing the authorities logical explanations for his actions although he had confessed to the shooting. He’s not stupid, certainly not out of his mind, but in the Israel Police investigations and reenactments of the shooting, he offered varying versions, in some cases contradictory, of the course of events.

Apparently he, too, felt that he was out to do justice when he decided, on the morning of the incident, to stop his car in the middle of the road that leads from Itamar to the settlement of Elon Moreh and to threaten Shatiya, who was driving toward him in his taxi on a dirt side road, with a loaded rifle.

He stated during his interrogation that he had stopped people in this manner before. In the past, he testified, he had, at rifle-point, ordered Palestinians who approached the main road from the dirt road to stop and show him an ID. He then made them turn around and go through the nearby army checkpoint. He had no authority to do this. On the other hand, no one ever told him it was prohibited. He added that on previous occasions he’d called military headquarters to report that he’d stopped Palestinian vehicles that had evaded the checkpoint, but when he didn’t receive clear directives, he had let the drivers go.

Elitzur claimed that he shot Shatiya in self-defense – that Shatiya sped toward him and that if he hadn’t shot him he would have been run over. However, Elitzur could not explain why the bullet had entered the victim’s car through a side window and not through the windshield. On top of which, nothing at the crime scene supported his account. Elitzur, who was arrested almost immediately, later maintained that he had acted because he’d spotted terrorists with explosive belts in Shatiya’s car. That claim, too, was dismissed by the police and the court as being totally baseless.

In my quest I resorted to investigative methods that might be questionable. Catching Elitzur was the central mission in my life.

In the latter stages of the trial, the defense argued that Elitzur was the victim of a conspiracy and that there was no connection between the shot he fired and Shatiya’s death. The judge’s ruling stated that “the defendant’s account is hard to swallow” and “insubstantial.”

Series of blunders

Underlying virtually every docu-activist film is the assumption that the authorities or others in charge haven’t done their work properly, and that someone high up has been severely negligent in fulfilling his duty – leaving the director no choice but to shed the role of observer and rectify the wrong himself. In the case of Elitzur, the negligence cried out to the heavens so loudly that by the time I got around to dealing with his story, it was already exhausted from all the crying out. To begin with, after his escape Elitzur’s name never appeared on the Most Wanted list published on the website of the Israel Police or on the Interpol site. His photograph and details were never disseminated at Israel’s border crossings or at passport control. The responses I got when I contacted the police spokesperson’s unit and the state prosecution at the beginning of my quest ranged from surprise that there was such a story, because it had apparently been forgotten, to hemming and hawing that responsibility for handling it lay elsewhere.

In December 2007, two-and-a-half years after Elitzur’s disappearance, Noam Preiss, a statistics coordinator for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, sent a query to the police spokesperson’s unit on the subject. The reply, from the ombudswoman of the Shai (Samaria and Judea) District, stated, in part, that “a preliminary examination we conducted showed that Mr. Elitzur did not escape from the detention facility in which he was being held,” and that the matter was being dealt with in a different district. Another letter, from the police spokesperson’s bureau, stated laconically that “a declaration exists in the police computer system (terminal) that he is subject to arrest.”

Yehoshua Elitzur following his arrest. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.Credit: Nir Keidar

The police’s computer system is undoubtedly familiar with the data. According to reports published by the Israeli organization Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, based on 1,163 cases in the years 2005-2017, the probability – in violent crimes involving Jewish perpetrators and Palestinian victims – that a complaint submitted by a Palestinian to the Israel Police would lead to an investigation, apprehension of a suspect, a trial and conviction was 1.9 percent. Fully 91 percent of the investigations conducted in the Shai District during that period concerning harm done to Palestinians or their property were terminated without indictments being handed down; 82 percent of the cases were closed for reasons that show that the police apparently failed to collect evidence or locate suspects.

If Elitzur hadn’t escaped, his story could have been treated as a major success of the law-enforcement system. His case belongs to the rare 1.9 percent that end with a conviction. But the negligence in his case began long before he escaped. During a year of legal proceedings, Elitzur remained under house arrest, which in his case meant within the settlement of Itamar. Itamar, however, doesn’t actually have boundaries or fences, and for the entire period of the trial Elitzur was effectively a free man.

The negligence peaked in September 2005, when a district court convicted Elitzur of manslaughter but then, puzzlingly, sent him back into house arrest. It needs to be emphasized that in most cases of conviction on a serious charge such as manslaughter, the offender is immediately sent to prison to start serving his punishment. The assumption is that the ruling will call for a lengthy jail term, so there’s no reason for the convicted criminal not to begin his sentence immediately. In cases where a convicted offender is placed under house arrest pending sentencing, the court usually demands guarantees to ensure that he does not evade judgment. These can include confiscating his passport or increasing bail, and in some cases barring him from leaving the country. None of those restrictions were imposed on Elitzur by the court on September 6, 2005.

In September 2005, a court convicted Elitzur of manslaughter but then, puzzlingly, sent him back into house arrest.

Nor was anything done when Elitzur failed to show up for one of the important hearings prior to the sentencing. “I’ve been phoning the accused for two days now, without getting an answer,” the defense counsel told the court. Two days later, Elitzur was caught strolling around Itamar, on the way back from his vegetable patch. “I was sick in the hospital. I have documentation,” he related, after he was brought before the judge and rattled off a list of ailments and pains. At the end of the short hearing, the judge stated that he found “no concrete reason for the accused’s failure to show up for the continuation of the trial.” He added that, according to his release letter, “the accused was discharged from the hospital with no findings.” Furious at the wasted day, the judge demanded that the amount of bail be increased. The transcript notes that Elitzur replied, “I give my word that I will come next week” – and the judge believed him.

Forged Mexican passport

A successful investigation is always based on three principles. The first involves the collection and systematic recording of all facts and evidence, even those that at first glance may seem insignificant or irrelevant. As I collected information about Elitzur, I learned the story of his life. I discovered that he was born in Germany in 1971 to a Catholic family from Bavaria. He first visited Israel in the early 1990s – a confused young man racked by guilt feelings over the deeds of the Nazis. He fell in love instantly with the land and the people. Subsequently he studied product design in Italy, but visited Israel several more times, and found himself drawn to Judaism. In 2002 he converted in Israel and immigrated there. He attended a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, grew stronger in his faith and underwent a process of accelerated religious-political extremism: In 2003 he was living in an illegal trailer on an isolated hilltop in Itamar. There he received, with no prior training, the M-16 rifle with which he killed Sael A-Shatiya.

Ettal, the Catholic boarding school Yehoshua Elitzur attended.

To this day, I’m not sure what Elitzur’s escape route was – not that this was ever a particularly important question. Already in the early stages of my investigation I learned that the authorities suspected right after he did not show up in court that he had fled the country; according to the records of the Interior Ministry, he did not do so legally, with a passport and via an official border crossing. Later, I learned that he hid for 14 months and was aided by friends from Itamar and the yeshiva he attended. Through one of them, he bought a forged Mexican passport for $30,000. It was a high-quality forgery of an original document, bearing the name of a fictitious person who does not exist in the official records.

After leaving Israel, Elitzur passed through several countries, usually via land crossings, until he eventually reached Mexico City. He lived there until 2010 under an assumed name. He became part of the city’s large Sephardi community and worked as a kashrut supervisor in a slaughterhouse and a butcher’s shop. He was very careful; he forged few social relationships and did not reveal his life story to anyone. A loner, he lived a simple, at times ascetic life. In 2010 he disappeared from Mexico. Israel Police sources say that they were close to catching him when he fled.

The second principle in conducting an investigation calls for formulating a working assumption for resolving the mystery surrounding a particular crime. That’s the direction in which the main efforts of investigators are aimed – the beacon toward which one proceeds in the darkness of uncertainty, until it goes out or until you spot a brighter light on the horizon. The working assumption is formulated intuitively, from a combination of facts of differing levels of certainty with suppositions, based initially on the simplest logic. For example, at a certain stage, I realized that Elitzur was alive, that he was not in Israel or in Germany, that he was in touch with his German relatives and that he was still following a religious way of life.

Based on that, I decided to focus on his ties with his family and members of several Jewish communities abroad. That may still sound like a shot in the dark, but my work now became far more concentrated. As a religiously observant person, Elitzur keeps kosher and needs a like-minded community to support him spiritually, socially and otherwise. It could be assumed almost with certainty that he was not living in a shack in a remote mountain location. As a religious but wanted person, he could not live in a place where outward signs of his Jewishness, such as a kippa, would attract excessive attention. He had to blend into his surroundings. Perhaps, then, he was living in a big city, even a bustling, crowded one. A city with an extensive Jewish community. To be in contact with his family he had to have access to technology in one form or another. One could thus assume that he had a digital identity, such as an email or Skype address, and access to a computer or mobile phone. From this it followed that he kept up with the news and with media reports about him.

Elitzur first visited Israel in the early '90s – a confused young man racked by guilt over the Nazis' deeds. He fell in love instantly with the land and the people.

At a very advanced stage of my investigation, when I identified activity by Elitzur on social networks, I was able to infer a great deal about his location by cross-checking the hours of activity of the profile with the times for the start and conclusion of Shabbat in different places in the world.

All the steps of the investigation must effectively prove the working assumption you’ve formulated, like an academic thesis. If the hypothesis turns out to be correct, the mystery will be solved. If not, a new assumption has to be formulated. When it, too, fails, and all the leads turn cold, the third principle in conducting an investigation comes into play: reexamination of all the details, facts, theories and conclusions. You have to try to rearrange the puzzle, to examine information that seems unsubstantiated, to cast doubt on the reliability of what appears to be certain. In the end, a new working assumption must be formulated, as part of a cycle that repeats itself until the mystery is solved.

Elitzur told his friends in Itamar and repeated in court that he had Jewish roots. He claimed to have discovered this only when his father was on his deathbed, two years before the shooting incident. He related that his father had hidden his Jewishness his whole life, but that he had recited the “Shema” (“Hear O Israel”) prayer with his son before his death. The event affected Elitzur so powerfully that he decided to convert, he said.

So often did Elitzur repeat this story that when I started my investigation, I regarded it as truthful. Accordingly, for the first two and a half years, I visited dozens of cemeteries in Germany searching for a Jewish headstone bearing the name of Elitzur’s father and the date of his death in 2002. At that stage I didn’t know which town Elitzur’s family had come from; I surmised that once I found the headstone I would be able to find out more about his roots and his family.

It thus came as a surprise when I found the headstone of Elitzur’s father in a Christian cemetery in a small town in Bavaria, on a highway leading from Munich to the Austrian border. All the details on the stone were consistent with the story Elitzur had been telling – with the exception of the cross engraved on its center. I couldn’t resolve the dissonance.

I had fabricated a story about a child survivor of the Holocaust, using Elitzur’s father’s name and birth date, imagining the life journey of a youngster who went into hiding in Germany, just as Elitzur had told it. On the basis of that information, I asked local archives to find out what had happened to that Jewish child. Naturally I found nothing. It was a story Elitzur had concocted, perhaps to cover up his family’s Nazi roots.

‘Screwing a nigger’

During my search for the fugitive I became almost intimately acquainted with him. I flew five times to Germany in an effort to get to know him. I met friends from his childhood and teenage years from the Catholic boarding school he attended. They told me about his tempestuous personality. His aunts and uncles described him as a radical, rebellious type. His brother said that beneath the bullying exterior lay a very gentle, compassionate soul. I saw childhood photos of him, his school report cards. From documents submitted to the court I learned about the illnesses he suffers from. Printouts of his phone calls, submitted in evidence, revealed his social and romantic ties.

After watching the footage of his police interrogations and the reenactments at the scene of the crime dozens of times, I became something of an expert in his body language, in every twitch and feature of his face. I learned more and more about Elitzur – until, at an advanced stage of the investigation, I got to someone who knew him in Mexico. They’d worked together in kashrut supervision and had been quite close. When I called the man and described the person I was looking for, he said at first that he’d never met him. He told me that the external appearance I’d described reminded him of someone he’d worked with in the past, but that none of the other details matched. The person he’d met had told him he was an Israeli who had done military service but had never mentioned that he’d lived in Germany and had roots there.

The source added, “He was a problematic person and I’d rather not talk about him at all.” I asked why. Hesitantly, he revealed something that happened when he and Elitzur were traveling in a car one day, after work. “So we’re driving along, when suddenly he said…” The source abruptly stopped. “Forget it, I’m a believing person. It’s not appropriate, it’s not worthy language.” “What did he say?” I insisted. “Leave it, it’s not worthy talk,” he replied.

Elitzur made up the story about his father's secret Jewish roots, perhaps to cover his family’s Nazi roots.

For some minutes I went on urging him to tell me, until he plucked up the courage to mumble, “And then he said to me… Oy, I hope God will forgive me, because I am a believing person … And then he said to me… Oy, ‘I really have an urge to screw a nigger woman.’” Overwrought and fearful of God, the source shouted out the words. “Where is he now?” I shouted back. I knew Elitzur was drawn to women of color. During my investigation, I’d located several such women with whom he’d had a relationship, some abroad. His last partner in Israel was a woman of Ethiopian origin.

My search for Elitzur also called for discretion: My thinking was that if he were to discover that someone was trying to locate him, he would dig in even deeper. With that in mind, I started with archives, population registries, telephone books and databases. In approaching institutions, I tried to be vague about the purpose of my research. For example, in my request to the archive of the Tel Aviv District Court, I wrote that I wished to peruse the investigative files and the court transcripts for the purpose of “carrying out a journalistic investigation dealing with Elitzur’s disappearance.” I knew that the request would be appended to the court file, and that defense counsel or others representing Elitzur would have access to it. It wasn’t worth my while to let it be known that I was searching for him.

Another investigative technique involves using a cover story. A good cover story has to center around an element of truth. It’s the comfort zone, the safe place to revert to when the feeling arises that things are about to go wrong. A good example was my attempt to move to Itamar. At a late stage in my investigation I started to wonder what Elitzur had done with his belongings. I knew he’d come to Israel with a container packed with personal property and with farming equipment brought from Germany. My assumption was that a fugitive from the law would not encumber himself with such belongings. I figured that Elitzur had hid his stuff somewhere and that someone was looking after it. Maybe that person was also in touch with him?

To find out, I went to Itamar with a researcher who helped me out, a German citizen with Jewish roots. Our cover story was that we were a new couple and were traveling in Samaria, in the northern West Bank, to get to know the land and its people. We said that this was her first visit to Israel and that she was considering making aliyah. All the details were true – we only omitted the fact that we were looking for Elitzur. In the grocery store at Itamar we got into friendly conversations with the salesperson, we picked up hitchhikers and spoke with workers and visitors at Givot Olam, near the so-called Hill 777, where Elitzur had lived. (Itamar consists of a number of hilltop outposts that have been annexed over the years. Givot Olam is one; Hill 777, aka Givat Arnon, is another.)

We told everyone the same cover story, making casual remarks about the researcher’s German citizenship and her wish to move to Itamar. Almost everyone we spoke to mentioned at their own initiative a German man who had lived there years ago and had disappeared. The fact that they raised the subject allowed us to ask innocently whether anyone was still in touch with him or knew what had become of him.

The container that held Yehoshua Elitzur's belongings.

In a conversation with a woman living on Hill 777, we found out that Elitzur had left his container near the trailer he’d lived in. That was a new and exciting piece of information. After the conversation we took a “cigarette break” next to the container. It was shut, its lock was rusty and high weeds grew all around. Apparently, no one had been here for years, nor did it seem as if anyone had forced open the lock or looted the contents. This was a significant discovery. I gathered from it that Elitzur was still on the run and that he hadn’t yet been able to find a permanent enough living arrangement so he could request that his precious property be forwarded to him. Maybe he didn’t have an address. Maybe he didn’t have enough money to pay for the shipment. Those thoughts also reinforced the suspicion that people in Itamar were still in touch with him and looking after his interests.

I decided to attach a satellite tracking device to the container, which would broadcast its location every few days. My hope was that one day I’d be sitting at home and see on my computer screen that the container was moving slowly along the highways of Google Maps, being loaded onto a freighter, crossing oceans, possibly being delayed a little at customs, but finally arriving at the place where Elitzur was.

Until that happened, I decided to break into the container. It was a pretty desperate move. It had been years since Elitzur’s disappearance and the investigation was stuck. Still, though I was in a bind I wasn’t completely stupid. I knew that if I broke into a container in Itamar in the middle of the night, at best I would be caught. More likely: I would be shot. During my visit I’d discovered that the trailer in which Elitzur had lived in the past was vacant. I decided to try to move in – that’s the only way I’d be able to sneak over to the container safely.

I needed a new cover story. I told the editors of Haaretz Magazine that I wanted to write a series of articles on life on West Bank hilltops, and said I was planning to move to Itamar for a short period to write about the place. I told the residents of Hill 777 that in the wake of our visit to Itamar, my German partner and I wanted to spend a few months in the vacant dwelling and that I would write about my experiences for the newspaper. They were suspicious, but a few days later I was invited to meet with the settlement’s admission committee.

It was a spring night in 2015, five years after I’d started my search for Yehoshua Elitzur. It was chilly on the hilltop, but the hospitality was courteous and included a cup of hot tea and a slice of tasty apple pie. From the outset they knew I was secular and made it clear that I did not really fit the “profile” they were looking for, mostly because I wasn’t planning to live there for a long period. However, they were ready to hear me out. I told them I was a correspondent for Haaretz, presented my views openly and explained my thoughts on their life in the occupied territories. I told them that the newspaper had expressed an interest in a series of articles about my and my partner’s life among them in Itamar. I suggested that if they were to feel that I was doing them an injustice in my articles, they should simply set me straight.

They were extremely suspicious and skeptical. They might not have suspected my intention to to break into Elitzur’s container, but it looked as though they didn’t intend to let me live in his place. Repeatedly they brought up the issue of the short-term rental. I didn’t give in: I even suggested that I could bring my own trailer to live in, or a tent. Then they really gave me a weird look. They escorted me to the door and promised to be in touch with me with an answer within a few days. I was certain it would be negative.

At the same time, the information I’d gathered about Elitzur in Itamar, Germany, Mexico and other countries he’d passed through as a fugitive led me to South America. The fact that he worked in kashrut supervision helped me put together a network of liaisons who are employed in related jobs in various countries in Latin America, until finally I got to Sao Paulo, Brazil. But I also needed Elitzur to make some mistakes. By that time I knew that he was destitute and desperate. He contacted childhood friends and people from Itamar via the social networks and asked for help. He also revealed information from his past to a number of former Israelis from the community he belonged to in Sao Paulo. It was only a matter of time before I would get to one of them.

Two weeks after meeting the committee from Hill 777, one of the women present called to inform me cordially that my request had not been approved, mostly, again, because I did not fit the settlement’s “profile.” I thanked her carefully, trying not to betray my great excitement: I couldn’t tell her that while the admissions committee had been discussing my request, I had succeeded in putting together other leads and was already at passport control at Ben-Gurion airport, en route to the country where Elitzur was living.

On July 18, 2015, Elitzur was arrested by Interpol in Sao Paulo. In January 2018, following two-and-a-half additional years of legal battles, he was extradited to Israel. That May, 13 years after the fact, his sentence was handed down: a 15-year prison term. From my point of view, the circle was closed when the Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Elitzur must also pay 200,000 shekels ($55,500) in compensation to the Shatiya family.