A Day of Unity to Remember Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal with a Promenade, a Torah, and a New Police Hotline
The arrival of June 12, the first anniversary of the terrorist abduction and murder of Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Sha’ar, and Eyal Yifrah, prompted many individual Jews and Jewish organizations alike to do something to memorialize the boys as well as recapture the sense of unity that their tragedy inspired. For many Jews, June 12 was a Day of Unity.
On June 12, 2014, the three teens were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists at a bus stop in Gush Etzion as they were making their way home from their yeshivas. Eighteen days later, after more than two weeks of prayers and searches that seemed to consume the entire Israeli population and their supporters around the world in an campaign that became known as “Operation Brothers’ Keeper,” the boys’ bodies were found in the Hebron Hills.
Now, in an effort to enhance the quality of life and make the area safer, the Jewish National Fund in partnership with the Gush Etzion Regional Council and the Gush Etzion Foundation, has undertaken to build a local promenade in memory of the three boys.
Connecting the Area
The promenade will serve as a memorial to the murdered teens, while connecting the Gush Etzion Junction, the local bus stop (which was the site of the kidnapping), Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim.
Slated to be approximately one mile long, the promenade will include walking and bicycle paths named for the three boys. It will feature gardens, rest stops, and stunning views of the Judean Hills and the Elah Valley. There will also be a parking area for buses and a new roundabout to make transportation safer.
“The main observation point will house a memorial with benches lining the area, and, each year, on the boys’ yahrzeit, a memorial walk will take place on the promenade,” said Shani Simkowitz, director of the Gush Etzion Foundation, which is a division of the Regional Council of Gush Etzion.
Lone Oak Tree
She said it was especially meaningful that the promenade will pass along the so-called “Lone Oak Tree,” from which the Gush Etzion town of Alon Shvut, “Oak of Return,” takes its name.
In 1927, Yemenite Jews founded the first farming community in the area, on property purchased in the Judean Mountains, directly south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the Judean Hills. They named the first settlement Migdal Eder for the tower established by Jacob the Patriarch as a monument to his wife, Rachel, when she died. Later, four more farming communities were established between 1940 and 1947 by other Jewish pioneers.
Just before the 1948 War of Independence, the Arab Legion blockaded and attacked the area in response to the UN resolution to partition Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish. For six months, 250 Jewish men and women stayed to defend their homes and hold off the invading Arab armies. All the Jews were killed in the final battle, known as the Kfar Etzion massacre, and the area became judenrein.
After the war, the area was left outside the 1949 armistice lines and had to be abandoned. But the residents never forgot their homes there. From a distance, all they were able to glimpse on the horizon was the huge, lone oak tree.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel was reunited with Judea and Samaria, the children of the original inhabitants were able to return to re-establish the communities, now called Gush Etzion. Their return gave new meaning to the ancient words of comfort issued by the Prophet Jeremiah to Rachel, the Matriarch: “And there is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their borders.”
Gush Etzion today consists of 22 communities with a population of more than 70,000.
The actual ancient “lone oak tree” is now a treasured visitors’ site near the town of Alon Shvut, and it will be part of the new promenade.
“By connecting these areas, JNF is helping to bring security to the region and provide a safe way to travel on foot between these communities,” said Ms. Simkowitz.
The JNF’s campaign goal to complete the promenade is $1 million.
JNF is also involved in a million-dollar effort to revitalize the museum in the Gush Etzion Visitor Center at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, which is a memorial to those who gave their lives defending Gush Etzion.
Beyond the Green Line
The fact that JNF America is involved in this effort is, in its own way, a bit of miracle as well. For many years, JNF America resolutely refused to fund any projects located outside the so-called Green Line, the line of demarcation between pre- and post-1967 Israel.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, a series of lawsuits were mounted by activists who objected to JNF’s policy of excluding Judea and Samaria. The plaintiffs claimed that by using JNF’s iconic blue tzedaka box, which features the entire map of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, JNF was guilty of false advertising. The courts agreed, forcing JNF either to abandon the map from the blue box or to include a warning, in large letters, that no funds would be used over the Green Line.
During that time, many of the activists began donating directly to JNF’s parent organization, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL), which operated over the Green Line but, because it was strictly an Israeli organization, could not offer American donors tax deductions. Eventually, some Orthodox-American rabbis announced that donations to their tax-deductible Discretionary Funds, could be sent to KKL as well.
Change in Leadership
In 1998, when Ron Lauder assumed the presidency of JNF, among the first projects announced by him and the then-new CEO, Russell Robinson, was a “ring around Jerusalem,” which meant planting trees such that Israel’s capital would be ringed in green. This would be geographically impossible without planting over the Green Line.
Since then, JNF America has worked on projects throughout Israel, on both sides of the Green Line. The new promenade in Gush Etzion as well as the museum are just the latest examples.
“JNF has deep roots in Gush Etzion,” said Ms. Simkowitz. “As early as 1928, JNF purchased land in the area and today owns 80 percent of the land there. JNF is an invaluable partner in our effort to preserve the ancient and modern history of the region.”
JNF was not the only group working to perpetuate the memory of the three slain teens this month. At the Shumriya Paratroopers’ training base, a Sefer Torah, written in memory of the boys and funded by anonymous donors, was dedicated. The families of the three teenagers specifically requested that the scroll be donated to this training base, in gratitude for the efforts of the soldiers there to find their sons last summer.
The families of the murdered boys as well as Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attended the ceremony.
“You entered my heart. You entered the heart of Israel,” Mrs. Netanyahu told the families.
Her husband, who sent a written message to the families, which was read at the ceremony, agreed.
“In the months since Operation Brothers’ Keeper to return the boys who were abducted and murdered by villains, we have not forgotten your spirit and faith. Thanks to your standing firm and your deeply noble conduct, the nation united, and both Israeli and Diaspora Jews rallied in hope, prayer—and pain. The bright characters of your sons will stay with us forever. They will serve as a symbol of love for humanity, the nation, and the country. You show mental power, strong faith, and awe-inspiring strength,” he said.
New Police Hotline
The Israeli police, who failed to take seriously the emergency call issued by one of the teens after they were kidnapped, took an important step to prevent similar tragedies. Last month, the police force inaugurated a new emergency hotline whose goal is to reduce traffic on the police’s primary hotline.
The new hotline, outfitted with technology enabling it to remain functional even in the event of a nation-wide power failure, is to be used for non-emergencies only, thus freeing the primary hotline for emergencies such as that experienced by the abducted teenagers.
It has been determined that, in Israel, 40 percent of the 8.5 million calls received annually on the police hotline, do not deal with emergencies.
On June 12, 2014, a call was placed to the police hotline at 10:25pm. For two minutes and nine seconds, Gilad Sha’ar issued garbled pleas for help, with the police respondent saying only, “Hello,” apparently not understanding what the teen was trying to say. Eventually, the officer on the line asked the teenager where he was, but, at that point, Mr. Sha’ar was cut off.
In the background, the tape of the call recorded various noises, including shouts by the kidnappers to the teenagers, telling them to “keep their heads down,” an Israel Radio program, several gunshots, and, finally, singing by the terrorist-murderers.
The police, apparently thinking the call was a hoax, ignored it until the parents of one of the teens filed a missing person’s report at 3am. It was still several hours before police connected the frantic call with the report.
The incident led to intense criticism of the Israeli police, which has continued despite the dismissal of five officers following an internal investigation.
Closing a Circle
The ceremony marking the inauguration of the new non-emergency hotline was attended by the Frenkel and Sha’ar families.
Gilad’s father, Ofir Sha’ar, said the new hotline “closes a circle.”
“For us, with all the pain we have, we still appreciate the Israeli police and security forces,” he said, noting that the families have been in close contact with the police throughout the year since the murders. “I am of the opinion that behind every computer center stands a man who is supposed to address and resolve cases that will save future lives. It is the responsibility of every person who is behind the other side to know Gilad’s story and that his act of heroism can save lives.”
Did The Right Thing
At the ceremony, Israeli Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said his goal is to “strengthen the sense of personal security and increase trust in the police.”
He praised Gilad Sha’ar as “a brave and tough boy who, in moments of fear and terror, acted calmly and with remarkable resourcefulness.”
“He did the right thing by calling the Israeli Police hotline, but, unfortunately, as have heard in the chilling recording, the damned murderers never gave them a chance,” he said.
Mr. Danino said his goal is to institute a system that will allow the hotline operator to see the caller on a map via satellite tracking, but that measure, he said, has not yet been approved under Israeli law.
To that end, the Israeli police have acted to develop the “Find Me” app, which is based on sending a text message to the primary police hotline, which will then relay the caller’s location to the police.
According to Mr. Danino, the application has already helped save many people in the short time in which it has been operational.