The group of several dozen seventh-graders had just finished school in Alon Shvut and were preparing to return to their homes in the bloc of settlement communities near Bethlehem. A few of the boys, their yarmulkes blowing in the wind, stuck out their index fingers, the Israeli equivalent of “thumbing a ride.”
“Absolutely not!” yelled their teacher. “No hitchhiking! You’ll wait for the next bus.”
He then consulted his watch.
“It comes in two hours.”
The students let out a collective groan.
On June 12, three teenagers were kidnapped on their way home from school late at night. In the ensuing days, thousands of Israeli soldiers surrounded the West Bank town of Hebron, about 10 miles from the school, believing that is where the kidnappers were holding the boys, who studied at a yeshiva boarding school in the area.
The mood in the region was somber. Many of the residents of these 20 communities know the kidnapped teenagers. Others see their own sons in them.
“I’m full of worry and anticipation, but I actually have hope,” said Sharon Katz, a theater director who lives in nearby Efrat. “The entire nation is praying for the recovery of these three wonderful boys. These three teenagers could have been anybody’s teenagers.”
Davidi Perl, the mayor of the 20,000 residents who live in Gush Etzion, said that the kidnapping has been devastating for residents there.
“It’s like someone came into your house and took your children,” he said. “It’s like they hit our soft belly. We felt like we were safe here. We walk around, go jogging or bike riding at all hours of the day or night. But we weren’t really safe.”
Katz started her theater company called Raise Your Spirits at the height of the second intifada, the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in 2000. These days she volunteers at a hospitality stand for Israeli soldiers. She dispenses drinks and homemade cakes for several hundred soldiers each day. Many of those passing through these days are heading to Hebron.
The hospitality stand was started in memory of Shmuel Gillis, a doctor from the area who was shot and killed while driving home from the hospital 13 years ago. His wife, Ruti, says the Palestinians in Hebron should pay the price for the kidnapping.
“I don’t want anyone to suffer,” said the soft-spoken artist, sitting at a table outside the hospitality stand. “But we should make life intolerable for the people there. We should cut off the water and the electricity and not let anyone go to work. Eventually, people will say to the kidnappers, ‘Give them back, we don’t want to suffer anymore.’ ”
These post-1967 communities are just 10 miles outside Jerusalem, where many of the residents commute for school or work every day. There are buses that serve the area, but they are infrequent. All ages are represented here, but it’s especially the youth who commute by hitchhiking — either from bus stops or special hitchhiking posts.
“My mother is worried about hitchhiking, but I told her I’m more nervous about crossing the highway here than accepting a ride,” said Noa Divo, 18, as she waited for a ride. “Of course my first reaction to the kidnapping was fear, but it’s much more convenient than the buses and it saves money.”
“Hitchhiking is simply part of the fabric of life here,” said Perl. “There are buses to Jerusalem but no buses between the communities. If you want to get from one to the other you have to hitchhike or walk.”
Perl says his own children frequently hitchhike. His 16-year-old son carries tear gas with him whenever he travels to Jerusalem and his sons in the army have their army-issued arms. But children as young as 12 or 13 who can be seen trying to get a ride would be unable to defend themselves if attacked.
The Israeli army says it has foiled at least 30 kidnapping attempts in the past year.
The proper response to the kidnappings is also being debated here. Some call for harsher measures against the Palestinians; others call for more Jews to move to the settlement.
One possible reason for the kidnapping is that the teenagers were taken in order to exchange them for some of the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. In 2011, Israel freed more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The prevalent mood now seems to be against a prisoner exchange.
“I am against any prisoner release,” said Perl. “The prisoners return to terror and do other acts against Israel. It doesn’t help and will never help to achieve peace.”
Even the seventh-grade boys waiting for the bus had an opinion.
“It would be a terrible thing if they did that,” Gavriel Gimpel, 13, said. “The last time they did that they took 1,000 for one. So if they have three they could take a lot more. We shouldn’t do it.”