Israel’s police emergency line received a desperate call from one of the three youths kidnapped near Kibbutz Kfar Etzion Thursday night, but dismissed it as a prank call and failed to report it to the military. Only four and a half hours later, when a relative of one of the boys showed up at a police station to report a missing person, did police officials alert the military, triggering an all-hands search.
As a result, four and a half hours were lost in a search and rescue operation in which every additional hour lengthens the odds of success. The emergency call came in at 10:25 p.m. The relative, variously reported as either a father or a brother, went to the police at 3:00 a.m.
The emergency call was rumored on social networks as early as Saturday, but was only cleared for publication by the military censor on Sunday. National police commissioner Yohanan Danino told a press conference that the delay in sounding the alarm would be investigated, but cautioned that the urgent priority right now was not to cast blame but to find the kidnapped youths.
Danino himself had just returned from New York, where he was to have attended an international police conference. His failure to return to Israel until Sunday afternoon, almost three days after the kidnapping, has touched off a scandal of its own that seems likely to bring his downfall.
According to press reports, a police operator on the 100 line, Israel’s equivalent of 911, received the call at 10:25 and heard a male voice whispering “They’re kidnapping us” and repeating it twice. (Some reports quote the call as “They’ve kidnapped me” or “we’ve been kidnapped.”) The call continued for another two minutes during which shouting and jostling could be heard before the line went dead.
Ynet.com reported, based on Internal Security Ministry sources, that the operator who received the call immediately notified a superior officer, and that several officers listened several times and tried unsuccessfully to call back before deciding it was a prank call.
Separately, Ynet.com reported on Saturday that an Israeli reported having picked up two of the boys and driven them part of the way before dropping them off and warning them that they were courting danger. The driver reported his involvement to the police on Saturday. A radio news broadcast later reported, without attribution, that the driver was frantic with guilt that he hadn’t driven them all the way into Israeli territory before finishing his errands.
The two are assumed to have been Naftali Frenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, who study at Mekor Haim yeshiva high school in Kfar Etzion, a veteran settlement in administered territory just south of Jerusalem. The third kidnap victim, Eyal Yifrach, 19, studies at Shavei Hebron yeshiva in the southern West Bank city and is assumed to have been kidnapped with the other two by chance.
The driver, who hasn’t been identified, told Ynet that he dropped off his wife at a supermarket and then went to pick up his son, taking a bypass road to avoid traffic lights. En route he encountered the two boys around 7 p.m. He told them he could take them as far as his turnoff and warned them that it was getting dark and the area was dangerous, but they dismissed the danger and assured him it would be fine. He then drove them as far as his turnoff and left them by the highway.
It was just over three hours later, at 10:25 p.m., that the call came to Police Line 100.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).