The lost sons

This is the story of the murders of two teenage boys, one Israeli and one Palestinian, whose only mistake was to stand by the side of a dark road.

These brutal killings, and those of two other innocent boys, have had far-reaching consequences. Riots in the West Bank, a war in Gaza and a deepened divide between Israelis and Palestinians.

The lives of Israeli teenager, Naftali Fraenkel and Palestinian youth, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, could hardly have been more different. Yet at heart these innocent boys had much in common.

And both are now forever linked by the gruesome events of the summer of 2014. Their deaths shook Israel, the Palestinian territories and much of the world.

One evening in June, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, a talented musician and student, was preparing to hitchhike home for the weekend from his boarding school in the occupied West Bank.

With him were two teenage friends, Gilad Shaar,16, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach.

Naftali and his companions never made it home. Israeli security forces spent the next 18 days hunting for them.

The search became Israel's biggest ground operation inside the West Bank in nearly a decade. Thousands of Palestinian homes would be raided and more than 500 suspects detained.

The resulting anger and bitterness among Israelis led to the loss of another young life. This time a Palestinian boy, the same age as Naftali, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

He was a vibrant yet sensitive youth who excelled at traditional folk dancing.

Young Mohammed’s fate caused similar outrage among Palestinians - deepening the growing divide between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands were to die in fresh conflict in Gaza and riots swept across the inflamed West Bank.

Many months later the fighting has stopped, but the hatred, anger and distrust that followed the murders of the boys, remains.

This is the story of the lives and deaths of Naftali and Mohammed.

Naftali's story

At first the officer who answered the emergency phone call couldn’t make out who was calling or exactly what was happening.

It was a young man on the line, but it was hard not to be sure that the call wasn’t a hoax.

He was speaking in Hebrew, and said in a quiet and muffled voice that he had been kidnapped. Two other voices, in Arabic, could also be heard.

Then a series of gunshots.

It was to be 18 long days before the full significance of this brief and chilling call would become known.

The scorching June sun had long slipped from the sky when Naftali Fraenkel and his two friends made their way to a small bus stop not far from their religious school in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank.

Naftali and Gilad were both boarders at the yeshiva and would have been looking forward to getting home for the weekend.

Everything looked normal as they passed through the front security gate of the large Israeli settlement, situated about 15 minutes’ drive south of Jerusalem, and headed towards the main road.

Their journey to Nof Ayalon, a religious community in central Israel that straddles the 1949 armistice line, was one they had done many times before.

There is no direct bus or train service. The boys chose to hitchhike home as usual.

All would have been aware of the risks, particularly for Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, but hitchhiking has become a way of life for many youngsters even after dark.

Besides, there was no indication that risks were higher on this night than any other.

The bus stop where the boys started hitching lies on the road to the West Bank city of Hebron.

A sprawl of recently built homes for Israeli settlers hugs the road and hills behind. There is plenty of traffic passing by and the teenagers must have been confident of getting a ride fairly soon.

Around 9.30pm Naftali pulled out his mobile phone and texted his father to say that he and his friend Gilad were on their way home.

His father, Avi, did not get that message for another hour, having gone to bed early. But on waking at 10.30pm he saw Naftali’s text and replied saying that this would be fine.

Feeling pleased that he and his wife would be seeing their son in the morning Avi rolled over and went back to sleep.

Back at the bus stop the three boys were waiting for a lift in the evening gloom. Making out the silhouetted occupants in the cars passing by was already difficult.

Finally a vehicle stopped and all three boys got inside.

How much they could see of the people who had stopped is impossible to know.

Naftali’s father had slept soundly since returning the text from his son, unaware that Naftali had never received it. He and his wife were about to wake up to the worst day of their lives.

AVI FRAENKEL: The next thing it was 3.30 in the morning. We have a policemen knocking on the door over here. Gilad’s parents were looking for him. They didn’t know what’s going on. They called people they know, they were told that Naftali and Gilad left together, they wanted to know if Gilad was here.

Avi and his wife Rachelle rushed upstairs to check Naftali’s room. There was no sign of either of the boys.

AVI FRAENKEL: I tried to phone him and there was no answer, and then I understand that it’s not good. That’s not the Naftali I know.

Avi and Rachelle then tried phoning anyone they could think of who might know where the boys were. But given that it was then 4am, it was hard to get through.

By now very worried, Avi felt he had to do something.

AVI FRAENKEL: I met Gilad’s father, Ofir, and we actually drove to Gush Etzion early on Friday morning to see what we can gather there, information and so on. And as time passed we understood that if it is what we think, it is serious.

RACHELLE FRAENKEL: At some point we get the locations of their phones in Hebron. That’s the opposite direction and that really sealed the direction of what we think is going on.

A sensitive, cheerful looking boy with light-framed glasses and brown hair smiles at those around him in the photo in front of me.

His father sifts through a large pile of pictures taken at various intervals throughout Naftali’s childhood.

In some he is sitting with his parents or playing with his six siblings. The commonest photos are of him playing musical instruments, his brow knotted in concentration and eyes filled with passion.

They tell me about their son’s deep love of music - from classic compositions, jazz and traditional Israeli music through to Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles.

He was also, they say, a keen sportsman and enjoyed playing around with languages, making funny puns in Hebrew and English.

Naftali’s sensitive and quiet side, clearly visible in his earlier photos, was evidently giving way to a more outgoing nature as the years went by.

AVI FRAENKEL: He wasn’t very sociable when he was young.

RACHELLE FRAENKEL: He opened up. He was never the centre of attention. Gilad was more of a centre. But he had more and more friends as time went by.

But Naftali, along with his two friends, were by 13 June very much the centre of attention.

Under an operation code-named Operation Brother’s Keeper, Israel’s security forces began a massive manhunt across the West Bank.

Soldiers began searching hundreds of homes, on one occasion blowing up a family’s front doors when they were not given access.

The sound of rubber bullets and tear-gas reverberated as the hunt for the boys and those who had abducted them moved on to universities, news organisations and refugee camps.

In one raid in the town of Dura near Hebron, a 13-year-old was shot dead after climbing out of his bedroom window to join other stone-throwing youths demonstrating against the operation.

In a separate incident a 19-year-old Palestinian died after being shot by Israeli soldiers during clashes in Jalazoun refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were left under curfew and more than half a million had their movements restricted.

As tensions continued to rise, more rockets were fired into southern Israel by Hamas militants in Gaza.

For an outsider it does seem rather extraordinary that an Israeli teenager should be allowed by his parents to hitchhike around the occupied West Bank, given the animosity felt by Palestinans there to anyone they perceive as a settler.

Rachelle says they tried to discourage him from doing it.

Soon after Naftali and his friends had been given a lift the nightmare began to unfold.

It wouldn’t have been long before they would have begun to suspect the car was unsafe.

The first clue was probably the route their car was taking. The driver’s failure either to turn in the direction of their homes in Nof Ayalon or to let them out at an appropriate junction would have set their alarm bells ringing.

Controlling three strong teenage boys is not easy and their captors would have had to act quickly.

It appears that all three were forced to put their heads down behind the seats.

With guns pointed at their heads, and threats to shoot anyone who moved, the frightened boys were left with little option but to obey, though each would have known that one of them had to try something.

It was then that Naftali’s friend, Gilad, somehow managed to get his mobile phone out of his pocket.

With his face and hands hidden from view he dialled the emergency number 100.

When the Israel Defense Forces brought the recording to the Fraenkel family, Rachelle at first felt unable to listen to it.

RACHELLE FRAENKEL: At some point we heard that tape. That wasn’t very easy I actually asked one of the people from the IDF team to prepare me because I thought the sounds might affect me in a way that would be hard to deal with. And he told me: “Rachelle what are you afraid of?” And I said: “I dunno - maybe I’ll fall apart.” And he said: “OK then, you’ll fall apart. Then what?” And I said: “Well then, I guess I’ll collect myself and get up.” Those were very simple words but they were very profound.

The news awaiting the Fraenkels was that after 18 days of searching three bodies had been found under a pile of rocks, just north of Hebron.

Forensic studies later concluded the teenagers had been shot dead soon after being abducted on 12 June.

RACHELLE FRAENKEL: I have very harsh physical memories of those hours. Of waiting for the news, hearing the news, of telling it to my children. Probably the hardest thing I ever did… You know when some people said uncertainty is the worst thing. I constantly said I’d trade uncertainty for bad certainty any day. But thank God... I can’t imagine what would have happened to our family if this didn’t come to an end. We were hoping for a different end.

According to Israeli figures, during the 18-day search, nearly 2,000 homes or Hamas institutions were searched and 381 people detained, 282 of whom were affiliated to Hamas.

Palestinian officials say more than 560 people were detained, six shot dead and more than 120 wounded.

The boys’ funeral, on 1 July, was attended by tens of thousands of people.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described their killers as “heinous murderers” and blamed the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The funeral crowds have now given way to the sounds of distant birds and the gentle flutter of flags that adorn the three boys’ graves.

They lie in a scenic cemetery perched high above the city of Modiin, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Naftali and his friends came from different families and different areas, but now lie side by side.

Rachelle believes their deaths have united their families, as well as Jews at home and abroad, in grief.

All seemed to feel that they, too, had lost a son.

One well-wisher gave the family sunflower seeds to plant in their garden in memory of Naftali. Bright patches of yellow now adorn the backyard where his younger brothers and sisters play.

Just hours after the funerals, Israeli jets hit a string of targets in Gaza, in response to rocket attacks by Hamas.

And with the boys’ killers still at large the Israeli defence force continued its search and detention operation on the West Bank.

Then, on 2 July came the abduction and brutal murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in an apparent reprisal killing.

The Fraenkels’ grief was soon to be shared by another family, this time in East Jerusalem.

Mohammed's story

In a modest family home in the Arab neighbourhood of Shuafat I’m shown the bedroom of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

It has become something of a shrine.

Mohammed’s various possessions - his mobile phone charger and text books - lie where he left them. It is as if he will soon be back.

Wiping tears from her eyes, his mother, Suha, vows that this is how she wants things to stay.

SUHA ABU KHDEIR: I will never take his stuff out. My son is inside my heart and will never leave. His brother, Saif, doesn’t even want to sleep in his brother’s bed. He doesn’t want to and I will keep it here forever.

The Abu Khdeirs’ family home is at a busy crossroads that hums with traffic and the sound of passers-by for much of the day.

But early on 2 July it was a much quieter scene as Mohammed waited on the corner for some friends.

They were to go together to dawn prayers at the local mosque, little more than 50m (165ft) away.

But before they arrived a car pulled up alongside the solitary boy. CCTV footage from a building across the street shows what happened next.

A light-coloured car drives past the place where Mohammed was sitting, outside his father’s electrical shop.

It stops briefly before reversing back up the street and disappearing out of frame.

Then two young men, both with short dark hair, approach the spot on foot and appear to start a conversation with somebody just out of shot, probably Mohammed.

One of them jabs his arm angrily at the person he is speaking to. The car stops in front of the men.

A few moments later there’s a struggle. Everyone involved gets into the car quickly and it speeds off through a set of traffic lights.

His mother tells me that the first she knew something was wrong was when Mohammed’s cousin, who had agreed to meet him, knocked on the door and asked her where he was.

After failing several times to reach her son on the phone, Suha called the police.

Another boy who had arranged to go to the mosque that morning with Mohammed was his teenage friend, Hakim.

He tells me why it was that he and others weren’t there as planned.

HAKIM: There was an attempt nearby the day before Mohammed was abducted to kidnap a mother and her child so my father stopped me from going out that morning. Around six of us were supposed to join him. It was Mohammed’s bad luck that nobody showed up. Some people live far away and may not have heard the call to prayer. Others probably overslept and some may have heard of the kidnapping I mentioned and were afraid to come to the mosque.

It seems the men who abducted Mohammed were looking for a Palestinian youth who they could snatch quickly with little resistance.

His father Hussein says that Mohammed - small, lightly-built and alone - would have fitted the bill.

HUSSEIN ABU KHDEIR: The killer-Nazi settlers saw him by himself. They parked the car on the side and asked him something about directions to Tel Aviv. Surveillance video shows that they were talking to him. So they made sure that they could handle him because he was a thin boy and not strong. Two of them attacked him, put their hands around his mouth as he started screaming. The car was parked on the side and they put him in the car by force.

His mother shows me photographs of her son. He has a sensitive yet vibrant face that looks closer to 12 years old than 16.

He had five brothers and sisters but there is no doubting the unique place he had in her heart.

SUHA ABU KHDEIR: Since he was young, he was special for me. He was so likeable. As he grew up, he started getting closer to me. In the house, we weren’t like a mother and a son, we were like friends. He was the closest one to me. Right up until the time he became a martyr, he would sit on my lap. I felt that he never grew up. For me he was still a baby.

HUSSEIN ABU KHDEIR: Mohammed was born here in Shuafat. He had a very strong personality. He was loved by everyone. He was very popular at his school and was one of the top students there. He used to take part in lots of social events here. He had a very strong personality. In that he was different from all of his brothers and sisters.

Suha told me how Mohammed would often burst into song as he came through the door from school.

She says he would sing and whistle happy tunes when walking around the house or coming down the stairs.

But his sense of humour, it seems, was his biggest gift to the family.

SUHA ABU KHDEIR: One day, he called me and ask me what we’re having for lunch. When I told him he said, wait until I count all the people with me on the bus. I’ll bring them all, and the driver! He just likes to joke with me so much.

Hussein sighs and runs his fingers through his beard.

HUSSEIN ABU KHDEIR: It was 4.10am when we called the police. This was about five minutes after he had been kidnapped. We gave them Mohammed’s phone number. But instead of tracking him, they started interrogating us about his friends, whether we have any enemies and what Mohammed was wearing. Silly questions just like those. It proves that they were covering up on the issue, they weren't interested in tracking him and following his abductors.

Dawn had not yet broken but those trying to save the boy were running out of time.

Terrified, Mohammed struggled with his abductors, desperate to get free.

According to testimony given to by suspect Yosef Haim Ben-David, the teenager began swearing at kidnappers and shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great!).

Ben-David said his in evidence that he gave instructions to “finish him and make sure he doesn’t get up, because those guys have seven lives”. Mohammed “started gurgling and eventually he stopped fighting,” he said.

Mohammed was still alive but there was even worse to come as he was driven into the Jerusalem Forest.

Ben-David says he parked the car by the side of the road, turned off the headlights, and pulled the teenager out of the vehicle.

Mohammed was then beaten over the head with a crowbar while his attacker screamed that this was revenge for the murders of Naftali Fraenkel and his two young friends.

Ben-David testified that he and his accomplices had brought with them three bottles which they had filled with petrol.

These were used to douse Mohammed’s badly beaten body before he was set on fire.

At 10am Hussein heard a report on an Israeli radio station saying that a burned body had been discovered in a forest.

Police refused to let him see the body or to show him photos, but they took DNA samples and at 11pm confirmed the body was Mohammed’s.

The boy may have gone but he’s far from forgotten.

His face stares out from posters in the courtyard outside his family’s home and a walled memorial, adorned with flowers and a white inscribed plaque, marks the spot where he was abducted.

Beyond this close-knit community the memory of what happened continues to stoke bitterness and resentment in Palestinian minds, just as the murder of Naftali and his friends does among Israelis.

Mohammed’s close friend, Hakim, tells me how the murder has shattered relations between local Palestinians and Israelis.

HAKIM: We didn’t have any problems before. Shuafat was calm, there were no police. But now, after the incident, clashes broke out. There is a military point here where the police come every time. The clashes didn’t only happen here but soon spread all over Jerusalem.

Hussein says Arabs no longer buy from Jews, and Jews have stopped coming to Shuafat.

Even though Mohammed’s body was found within a few hours of his abduction, the Abu Khdeirs believe the police put little effort into finding him and even claim that officers spread rumours that he’d died after a family dispute.

But Micky Rosenthal, of the Jerusalem police, says the same procedure takes place in any event “whether we’re talking about a teenager Israeli Arab or a Jewish boy”.

But Mohammed’s parents insist, despite all the evidence, that Naftali and his two Israeli friends weren’t actually murdered at all - they died in an accident and the Israeli government used the deaths to fuel anger against Palestinians.

His mother says the Israeli government “wanted to bomb Gaza and planned to use this as a justification”.

I ask how widespread is this belief. She replies: “Everyone knows this story, not only us. We didn’t come up with this story.”

But, I point out, senior Hamas figures have admitted that members of the organisation carried out the killings.

Hussein says: “I am not a politician, I am an ordinary man and didn’t hear of this story. The story that we know is that they died in a traffic accident.”

After a three-month manhunt for the killers of the three Israeli teenagers, members of the Israel Defense Forces entered a house.

A spokesman says there was an attempted arrest of two Palestinian suspects, an exchange of fire, and the two suspects were killed.

Mohammed’s parents insist that the failure to take the two men alive means that their guilt has never been proven.

Mohammed’s parents and sister guide me to the roadside spot where the boy died.Their faces are etched with strain and sadness.

As we arrive at the site I see rows of wooden picnic benches just below the place where it happened.

It’s an incongruous sight. Our car draws to a halt.

Hussein leaps out and throws his hands in the air, in what looks like a mixture of anger and surprise. He points to the place where the family had laid a stone-ringed memorial, adorned with potted flowers and posters of Mohammed. Now there’s nothing.

HUSSEIN ABU KHDEIR: It was neo-Nazis and right-wing Zionists in Israel. As soon as we all left this site they destroyed the memorial we’d left for Mohammed. I shall now seek the court’s permission to build another memorial, this time with cement with a stone plaque on it, so that those people can’t destroy it again.

Both parents busy themselves rebuilding the memorial - rocks, pink potted flowers and posters arranged on the patch of scorched earth. Hussein then nails two more posters of Mohammed on to nearby trees.

Two weeks later, when I visit again, the memorial is again destroyed.

Just before a pre-trial hearing in November of the three Israelis accused of murdering Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the family lawyer, a Palestinian, believes the court will deliver fair justice and that “those found responsible for this huge crime will be properly punished”.

Hussein does not share his lawyer’s optimism.

An angry crowd gathered outside the court seemed to be equally pessimistic about the chances of justice being done.

A few minutes before I left the building the main defendant, Yosef Haim Ben-David, declined to comment on the charge of murder owing to what his lawyer said was an inability to communicate.

The other two defendants, whose names can’t be published because they are both minors, admitted to most of the facts in the indictment but denied the charge of premeditated murder.

In late December 2014, Hussam Qawasmeh, a Palestinian who confessed to planning the kidnapping and murders of Naftali and his two friends, was convicted in an Israeli military court of three counts of premeditated manslaughter.

Remembering the boys

Rachelle Fraenkel sits in the back garden of their home in Nof Ayalon with her youngest child, Shlomo. Bright yellow sunflowers are dotted all around them.

Avi and three of the Fraenkels’ other children sit together around a garden table a few metres away.

Avi tells me that this is where Naftali used to play basketball. Before he’s finished speaking, his youngest daughter grabs the ball he probably used and runs off to play with it, bouncing it on the ground as she goes.

Despite the tragedy, there are smiles, laughter and even fun, though even an outsider can feel how much their son is missed.

RACHELLE FRAENKEL: Keeping Naftali alive is a challenge. On the one hand we want him to be there, everywhere with the flow of the family, and to always be present with us. On the other hand we don’t want to constantly remind ourselves of the void, it’s there, there’s no way to avoid the void. But we don’t want to bring the mood down. It’s a challenge and we’re learning. We’re beginners.

It is then that Rachelle turns to what happened to Mohammed.

A life taken, it appears, in retaliation for the killing of their son and his two friends.

A grotesque tit for tat in this cycle of murder and revenge.

It’s clear to Rachelle Fraenkel that the latest killing achieved nothing but more grief.

RACHELLE FRAENKEL: We heard about the death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. At first we couldn’t believe that it’s a hate crime. We thought something else might have happened. We were horrified. It stands against every value we live or educate towards. No parent should go through what we’ve been through. And especially not an innocent boy just walking through the street in Jerusalem. It is simply horrible.

A solitary figure stands over Mohammed’s grave in an otherwise empty graveyard, a few minutes’ walk from his home.

It belongs to Mohammed’s younger sister, 15-year-old Raya.

RAYA ABU KHDEIR: I feel very sad that I’m standing here by my brother’s grave - we loved him so much. He’s buried next to his grandfather. It was an ugly day, a bad day.

Can she see a day when the killing will stop, I ask her.

The expression on her tear-stained face prepares me for the words that follow.

RAYA ABU KHDEIR: No I can’t. I feel fear all the time. I’m so afraid now that I rarely leave our house.

Not long after the death of their sons, both families discussed the possibility of meeting, but it has not happened.

And as time has passed, the prospect of them getting together seems to have got fainter rather than stronger.

It’s a trend mirrored by the two communities who, since the murder of the boys, appear to be drifting further apart.

It’s an outcome, that is perhaps the last thing these two thoughtful boys would have wanted.