NOF AYALON, Israel — Racheli Fraenkel apologized. She said she didn’t like bragging about her son. Her sister said, sure, you can brag a little bit.
The sisters were sitting in a neighbor’s back yard Saturday, 10 days after Fraenkel’s 16-year-old son went missing while hitchhiking home from his religious high school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Naftali Fraenkel’s abduction has dominated the news here. It has sparked the largest, most aggressive military sweep and manhunt in the Palestinian territory in a decade.
Although Naftali Fraenkel was born in Israel, because his mother is an American citizen, so is he. He comes from a sprawling American-Israeli clan that spreads itself out between New York City and here.
He and two other Israeli teens, one 16 and the other 19, disappeared near a junction in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the three were kidnapped by members of the Islamist militant movement Hamas, but he has offered no proof.
Some Hamas members have applauded the abductions, but they have denied responsibility; no ransom demand has been made, nor has any proof of life surfaced.
“We believe the children are alive, that they will be brought back to us,” Racheli Fraenkel said. “We believe they’re hiding them someplace. I don’t like to think about that, where they’re hiding them. I like to think about them coming home.”
The 45-year-old mother of seven made her way through the bushes for the rare interview, bypassing friends, well-wishers, police and journalists camped in front of her home two doors down.
Naftali Fraenkel, finishing his third year at the Mekor Chaim Yeshiva, was set to take his biology matriculation exams. “He’s a good student. He has a critical eye. He taught himself guitar. He has a cynical sense of humor,” his mother said. “He fights with his sisters,” she said smiling, then added, “But not too much.”
What does he want to be when he grows up? “He’s sixteen,” she shrugged. “Ask him.”
Racheli Fraenkel said that as best as Israeli investigators can piece the story together, Naftali and schoolmate Gilad Shaar were hitchhiking home on June 12 when they disappeared. The third teen, 19, was also thought to be hitching a ride in the area. One of the three, according to Israeli news media, managed to make a whispered phone call to a police emergency line and say, “We’ve been kidnapped.”
Racheli and her husband, Avi, said they were awakened at 3 a.m. the next day by police. The authorities had received a report from Shaar’s parents that their son was missing. “We thought we would just go upstairs and see them sleeping. But they weren’t here. Both of their phones were turned off. My son is pretty responsible. He’s not stupid. He doesn’t just not come home. But I was praying that this night he was stupid,” Racheli Fraenkel said.
The Fraenkels said U.S. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro paid a visit, as did Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who they said cried.
Since Israeli security forces launched their search for the teens, more than 350 Palestinians have been arrested, most of them from Hamas. Thousands of homes and businesses in the West Bank have been searched, and five young Palestinians, including a 15-year-old, have been fatally shot by Israeli soldiers in clashes that have accompanied the raids. Two of the five were shot in the past 24 hours, one in Nablus, one in Ramallah.
“We are in the middle of an ongoing and focused effort to return our boys home,” Netanyahu said Sunday at a cabinet meeting. “That effort involves a certain degree of friction with the civilian population of Judea and Samaria, but we have no intention of maliciously harming anyone.” Judea and Samaria are the historical names that some Israelis use to refer to the West Bank.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has denounced both the kidnappings and the Israeli response. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Saturday, Abbas asked, “What does Netanyahu have to say about the killings? Does he condemn it? Look at what’s happened all over the West Bank over the past days, the violence and the destruction of homes. Is that justified?”
Abbas, known widely by his nickname Abu Mazen, warned Israeli lawmakers that the military operations are going to throw the West Bank into chaos.
In the small cozy township of Nof Ayalon, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel said, “I hear the Palestinians themselves, Abu Mazen, saying that you don’t take children on their way home. So everything is being done to bring the children back home. You do what you have to do. We can’t let them hold on to these children.”
Asked about the deaths of the Palestinians, Fraenkel said, “Any death anywhere upsets me, but at this point the moral thing to do is to do anything to get the children home.”
The Fraenkel family is religious. Racheli Fraenkel said they are considered Orthodox Jews in Israel and would be seen more as modern Orthodox in the United States. They keep Sabbath and send their kids to religious schools, but they mix in Israeli society — in academia and government jobs.
“We believe what will be will be. That God has a plan. And so we let the authorities do their job and search for the boys and we do our job,” said Naftali’s aunt, Ittael Fraenkel. “We pray.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.