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Prankster says he staged disappearance to escape mafia debt

Niv Asraf, 22, who sparked a massive West Bank manhunt, says he owes hundreds of thousands of shekels in sporting bets to the mob

Niv Asraf (center), a 22-year-old from Beersheba, is seen at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on April 3, 2015, a morning after he was found in Kiryat Arba after being falsely reported as missing. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Niv Asraf (center), a 22-year-old from Beersheba, is seen at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on April 3, 2015, a morning after he was found in Kiryat Arba after being falsely reported as missing. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A 22-year-old Israeli man who sparked a massive, multi-million-shekel manhunt in the West Bank Thursday told investigators over the weekend he staged a “disappearance” to avoid his gambling debts, which ran up to hundreds of thousands of shekels.

Earlier reports indicated that Beersheba resident Niv Asraf carried out a kidnapping prank in order to win back his ex-girlfriend. But over the weekend he told detectives that he owed thousands in soccer bets to “well-known criminals,” and that he ran away in order to escape paying the exorbitantly high interest rates they demanded.

“I got into debt of several thousands of shekels that swelled to several hundreds of thousands of shekels. They demanded that each month I pay NIS 6,000 ($1,530). They threatened to hurt me if I do not pay the debt,” Asraf told police, Channel 2 reported Sunday.

The disappearance, centering on the same area of the West Bank where three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered less than a year ago, sent hundreds of soldiers, police and agents of the Shin Bet security agency on a massive house-to-house manhunt in Palestinian villages around Hebron.

The operation, which took several hours, cost the state several million shekels, police said. Helicopters were deployed, war rooms set up and massive forces mobilized for the search.

“I didn’t stage the kidnapping. I just wanted to disappear. I took a sleeping bag and some canned food and disappeared into a wadi near Kiryat Arba. I slept for a few hours, but I was absolutely terrified,” Asraf said, referring to an Israeli settlement adjacent to Hebron.

Asraf claimed that the mobsters offered to recruit him in exchange for reducing a portion of the debt, but he refused. He began working a day before the kidnapping with the Jewish National Fund on a base salary of NIS 6,000 per month — but that wasn’t enough to meet interest payments, he said.

“These are well-known criminals. I was afraid of them, so I decided to disappear. My life was in danger. I was afraid to complain to the police,” he said.

The police said they will investigate the matter to determine whether to press charges against Asraf debtors.

However, several holes in the account left police feeling skeptical about Asraf’s testimony, the report indicated.

“Asraf planned to stage the kidnapping [in advance] together with his friend,” a senior district police investigator told Channel 2.

“The duo caused millions of shekels of damages to state coffers. Regardless of the financial aspect, combat units had to cancel training sessions and operations to look for them,” the investigator said.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Friday extended Asraf’s remand by five days, along with that of his friend Eran Nagauker, also from Beersheba, who played a role in the incident.

Both men are accused of giving false evidence, breach of public order and obstruction to a police officer in the performance of his duty.

The lawyer representing Asraf said his client felt remorse for what he had done.

“Niv is sorry for what happened, his family is also sorry. The whole country held its breath [for him],” Asraf’s lawyer Moti Yosef told Channel 2 Friday.

Asraf was found safe and sound late Thursday with a sleeping bag and some canned food. Police said the event was being considered as a “prank” and a massive “waste of resources.”

“We apologize to all those who helped in the search,” Asraf’s father told the Israeli media on Friday. “I don’t know what’s happening with him. We’re happy he’s back, but we’re worried about his emotional state,” the father said.

Beersheba man, Niv Asraf, 22, feared kidnapped in the West Bank on April 2, 2015, was found safe near Hebron. Police say incident was fabricated. (Photo credit: Niv Asraf/Facebook)
Beersheba man, Niv Asraf, 22, feared kidnapped in the West Bank on April 2, 2015, was found safe near Hebron. Police say incident was fabricated. (Photo credit: Niv Asraf/Facebook)

“There is a lot to be angry about this morning,” Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz told Army Radio Friday morning. “Lots of people who need to be carrying out other security missions left their assignments and switched to this one. Hundreds of soldiers, intelligence people, air force personnel, it really was a concerted effort involving many work hours of soldiers, commanders and Shin Bet personnel.”

The Palestinian Authority also assisted with the search, Channel 1 television news reported.

After Asraf was found Thursday night, the IDF said that security forces would return to their routine deployments.

Eran Negauker, 22 of Beersheba, is seen at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court for remand extension on April 3, 2015, a morning after his friend Niv Assaraf was found in Kiryat Arba after being falsely reported as missing. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Eran Negauker, 22 of Beersheba, is seen at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court for remand extension on April 3, 2015, a morning after his friend Niv Asraf was found in Kiryat Arba after being falsely reported as missing. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nagauker had called police just after 4 p.m. and reported that Asraf had entered the Palestinian village of Beit Anun and hadn’t returned.

The village became the focal point of the Israeli search, with troops flooded into the area searching homes and fields. The army set up roadblocks on Route 60, the main north-south artery connecting Jerusalem and Hebron, and Route 35.

According to the account given by Nagauker, the two men got a flat tire while driving on the road between Kiryat Arba and Beit Anun.

Asraf went to get tools to fix the flat from the nearby Arab village and disappeared, he said.

Suspicions were raised after the car was found to have no flat tire and police questioned why the two had stopped where they did. The car was stopped precisely at the bottom of a path leading into the village.

A Channel 2 report Thursday said that Nagauker, a former Border Policeman who had served in the area, had given “at least three versions” of what had happened, and was not considered credible.

It made no sense for Asraf to enter a potentially hostile Palestinian village when the entrance to Kiryat Arba was only 300 meters away from the spot where their car was stopped, the report added.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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