Teenagers Under Siege as Murders Haunt West Bank

Almost every weekend, Dvir thumbs rides through the hills of the West Bank to the Jewish settlement where his family lives. The murder of a neighbor on a similar journey home won’t change the 16-year-old’s routine.

“The terrorists want to scare us, they want us to leave this place, but this is how we live,” said Dvir, a crocheted skullcap pinned to his close-cropped hair as he mourned Gilad Shaar, who grew up next door in the settlement of Talmon. “Our response is to be together now and help one another, and to believe even more in our mission to live here.”

Gilad was 16 too, one of three students kidnapped June 12 as they hitchhiked home from schools where they were weekday borders. Their bodies were found in a ditch 18 days later, on land Israel occupied in 1967 and Palestinians claim is theirs.

Teenagers born and raised amid the territory’s scraggly hills and olive groves have always lived under the threat of violence and on the edge of war. The murders, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared was the work of Hamas militants, steeled the resolve of young settlers like Dvir -- and the discovery of a 17-year-old Palestianian’s body in a Jerusalem park the day after the students’ funeral did the same for young Arabs like Izz el-Din.

“I feel anger, sadness and strength,” the 15-year-old said as he mourned Mohammed Abu Khdair, whose death Hamas has blamed on Israel. “Because they killed my friend this gives me strength to fight the killers.”

Hitching Rides

Izz el-Din lives in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War. He said he’s tried to keep up with World Cup matches over the noise of stun grenades and firebombs from clashes his friend’s death sparked between police and residents in his neighborhood, where he and Mohammed played soccer and prayed at the mosque. Izz el-Din and Dvir are identified only by first names because they’re minors.

Dvir’s home is 30 miles (48 kilometers) away, in one of the hundreds of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank. His siblings were supposed to start summer camp this week but it was postponed after the discovery of the bodies of Gilad, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Naftali Frankel, 16, a citizen of both Israel and the U.S.

Public transportation is so sketchy in the West Bank that hitchhiking is common. Dvir hadn’t considered it dangerous. He’d hitched a ride home from his religious school the night Gilad disappeared, and figured the boy’s family hadn’t heard from him because the phones were out of order.

“The last thing on my mind was that they were kidnapped,” he said in the backyard of the Shaar’s home in Talmon, whose 300 or so residences, most with red-tile roofs, sit atop a hill. “This kind of thing just hasn’t really been happening.”

Fearing Kidnappers

Adults have cautioned children to be more careful when they’re away, and Dvir’s mother and father urged him to take a bus whenever he can. Still, he said he won’t stop hitchhiking.

“Parents will continue to worry,” said Zurit Fenigstein, 40, a mother of six in Talmon. “This isn’t easy for any of us. But we have to accept the reality in which we live.”

Dvir and Izz el-Din are well versed on the narratives of their communities. The young Jew said violent Palestinians want to intimidate him. The young Arab said Israel discriminates against him. And Izz el-Din said he has been frightened since his friend’s killing; Israeli police said he may have been abducted, as the Jewish boys were.

“I feel scared the kidnappers will come back,” he said.

Joud’s Death

His 30-year-old cousin, Sameh Aweadah, said residents of the neighborhood, called Shuafat, feel they are under siege.

“The police have completely closed off Shuafat from the world,” said Aweadah, whose wife is expecting a girl in October. “I feel terrible that this is the world I will bring my daughter into.”

The Israeli army has reinforced its troops near the Gaza strip in response to increased rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled region. One missile aimed at Israel fell short. Three-year-old Joud Dannaf was playing with her brother and sister when it landed, spraying her with deadly shrapnel.

“Joud was not a militant, she was just a child,” her father, Mohamed Yousef Dannaf, said. “If we lived in peace, Joud would have grown up, gone to school and lived a secure life like other children in the world.”

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