The army used dogs and trackers. It floated surveillance balloons and launched unmanned aircraft. It sent nine brigades of infantry troops into the West Bank to “turn over every stone.”
The Shin Bet security service, over the course of 18 days, interrogated hundreds of Hamas operatives. It used every human source at its disposal and devoted much of its intelligence capacity to the task of finding Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gil-ad Shaar.
By Saturday night, the trail of evidence, including the discovery of a sandal and eyeglasses that belonged to one of the boys, had narrowed the search.
But in the end it was a group of several civilians, all at home in the field, who found the three teens – on their second day of searching, a few yards from one of the marks they had made on their map.
“We came at it with a different approach,” explained Hovav Landau, a former officer in the paratroop brigade’s recon unit, who today, as an industrial designer, builds single track bike trails and runs a company called Bible Bike. The group of volunteers, all outdoorsmen, decided that they were not “going to work according to the intelligence from the army and the Shin Bet,” Landau said, but rather would take the basic facts of the case, made available to them by the security forces, and “dress that up with our own healthy logic – what would we do in the same situation?”
At first, though, the army was not interested in outside initiatives. Yaron Rosenthal, the director of the field school in Kfar Etzion, the settlement where Fraenkel and Shaar went to high school, told this reporter on Thursday of last week that the army was not accepting outside civilian help but that he would update me if and when civilians were allowed to aid in the search.
Rosenthal and others, Landau said, had been allowed to help during the early days of the operation, but at the time were not asked to draw up a plan of their own but rather to fulfill the menial tasks of soldiers: walking in a line and combing squares of territory.
On Friday afternoon, after drawing up a plan on Thursday night, the volunteers met with the Etzion brigade commander Col. Amit Yamin. “We found a humble, attentive, and unique individual,” Moshe Weinstock of Kfar Etzion wrote Tuesday on his Facebook page. “He listened, adopted our analysis of the territory and our plan of action, made it more exact, took care of everything, and began energetically leading it himself.”
Landau, a resident of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, knew Gil-ad Shaar. He had worked with him over the summer last year, helping to cut a bike track near Talmon. [Full disclosure: Landau served as this reporter’s direct commanding officer for several months during the mid-90s.] On Friday Landau got a telephone call from Avital Sela, who is related to him by marriage. The two became friends when Landau built a bike trail around the settlement of Shilo, where Sela runs the ancient historical site at Tel Shilo. “He called me and said that they were trying to put together a team of people like us, kind of scouts, outdoorsmen, to work a little differently and contribute to the matter,” he said.
Landau, though, couldn’t make the two-hour drive down to the region on Friday or Sunday.
On Monday morning, dressed in civilian clothes, he joined four other men and headed out. There were perhaps 15 others back at the base camp. The five civilians were accompanied by 20 or so Special Forces soldiers from the Maglan unit. At first they searched a different patch of land. It was one that made sense geographically and topographically, with many pits and caves that could be used to hide or bury bodies.
In the afternoon, the group walked along the shoulder of a hill outside Halhul. They looked for anything unnatural: rocks that had been disturbed, perhaps with the muddy side facing up; leaves of a bush, say, with the waxy side down; or rock mounds that did not seem organic to any nearby agricultural terrace. “Looking for whatever might not be in order, or in its proper spot,” Landau said.
These are skills every Special Forces soldier learns: you do not hide under the biggest tree in the forest because the eyes are drawn to it. You cover your tracks. Often local villagers are acutely in tune with the landscape and can recognize anything conspicuous. In this instance, though, the killers were either in a rush or less in tune with the natural surroundings.
Two terraces down the slope from Landau, an outdoorsman who did not want his name revealed “saw some vegetation that did not look like it belonged,” Landau said.
He began moving bushes and stones and “as soon as he started digging it was clear that there was something significant there,” Landau said.
The group uncovered only one body, and, though they promptly radioed the police forensic unit, “we thought in kind of an optimistic way that it could also be a local Palestinian or something.”
Rather than stand around and wait – an alien concept to most of them – they kept searching through the yellow, green, and gray landscape.
Only once the forensic team had arrived and the bodies were uncovered was the search suspended.
Landau, who said he walked down the street this morning and wondered if the people passing him by were aware that only several hours ago he had helped unearth the bodies of the three teens, drew some comfort from the knowledge that he had mitigated some of the families’ agony. “By chance I know the family of the boy from Talmon [Shaar]. I was at the house 10 days ago,” he said. “It’s not that I think their lives will be [sweet as] honey now. Not at all. But life in uncertainty, like the Sasportas case…at least in this case the suffering of the family was cut short and not drawn out into even more difficult circumstances.”