Mideast Israel Palestinians

Mothers of the three missing teenagers embrace during their first meeting

The mother of one of the three boys missing in Israel this week told them to be strong, saying “all we want is to hug our children,” as the British government offered direct help in finding them.

Racheli Frankel, whose teenage son Naftali, 16, disappeared together with two other yeshiva students Gilad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, while hitch-hiking on Thursday night, spoke after meeting the other boys’ mums for the first time.

“We feel deeply embraced by the entire Jewish nation, which accompanies us throughout the day and gives us so much support,” she said.

 “We ask that the prayers continue. All we want is to hug our children. Eyal, Gil-ad, Naftali, we love you, we miss you, be strong, be strong!”

Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel

Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel

Her call came as the UK’s Middle East Minister Hugh Robertson, in a visit to Israel, pledged to support the IDF in its efforts to find them.

Meeting Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, Robertson said: “I reiterate the UK’s strong condemnation of the abduction of [the boys] and express our hope that they will be urgently returned to their families.”

His pledge came as Israeli forces pushed ahead with an unprecedented recovery effort, arresting hundreds of Palestinians, including over 50 released last year as part of a US-brokered deal to return to negotiations.

In addition, there were several raids in Palestinian cities and camps, with thousands of people restricted all over the West Bank.

In Nablus, soldiers raided houses and seized weapons, while in Hebron, the IDF closed roads and refused permission to leave, in a move it condemned as collective punishment by some human rights groups.

“We are doing everything to find Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has blamed Hamas for the kidnapping. The Islamist movement based in Gaza is now bound together in a unity government with the secularist Fatah faction.

As Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas trading barbs, the British Jewish community rallied round to call for the boys’ return, using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurBoys.

The campaign, initiated by students at Haifa university, was adopted from the international call for the release of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, and by Wednesday, the Bring Back Our Boys Facebook page had over 95,000 ‘likes’.

Children supporting the #bringbackourboys Twitter campaign

Children supporting the #bringbackourboys Twitter campaign

In Britain, the banner has been to unite everyone from politicians to members of the public, with young and old, left and right, joining to call for the boys’ release.

“I have a 16-year old son myself,” said Board of Deputies’ Senior Vice-President Laura Marks. “I can’t imagine what those mothers are going through. It just highlights the need for solutions in Israel.”

At a hastily-arranged service at Hendon United in Raleigh Close on Sunday night, Chief Rabbi Mirvis led what he called a “truly remarkable gathering” of more than 1,000 people.

Having composed a special prayer, Mirvis said: “Three young Jewish souls are facing an uncertain future and we must pray without hesitation for their safe and swift return. The house of Israel is in sorrow, and we stand with you and feel your pain.”

Also addressing the crowd, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub took comfort in the show of support, saying: “That so many could gather at such short notice to express their concern and solidarity with three young men they have never met, 3,000 miles away, is an astonishing expression of the teaching that all Israel are bound up with each other.”

The boys’ disappearance outside a Jewish settlement prompted bitterness online, with some Palestinians posting pictures of children holding three fingers up, apparently in reference to the capture of the three boys. Others posted sickening images mocking the teenagers’ abduction.

Elsewhere, pro-Israel supporters set up a Facebook page, calling for Israel to kill one Palestinian every hour until the three teenagers are returned. By Wednesday this had received 20,000 ‘likes’.

On Tuesday, Israeli ministers agreed to “worsen” the condition of Hamas prisoners in prison, with Economy Minister and former settler leader Naftali Bennett saying: “We’re turning Hamas membership into a ticket to hell.”

Qadoura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, said: “What Israel is doing has nothing to do with security, but is a policy of revenge.”

But Israeli forces were unequivocal, with IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner saying: “It’s a multi-dimensional operation, both overt and covert, to strike a substantial blow to Hamas, its infrastructure, its institutions, its lifeline and everything that keeps it going.”

  • Gilad Shaar

Gilad Shaar is 16 years old and from Talmon, a West Bank settlement. Like Eyal, Gilad is a youth counsellor, loves to read, listen to music and studies hard. He boards at the Makor Chaim yeshiva with Naftali in the Kfar Etzion settlement.

  • Naftali Frenkel

Naftali Frenkel, 16, is from Nof Ayalon. He studies at the Makor Chaim yeshiva in Kfar Etzion with Gilad. He has US citizenship although he has never lived there. He is the second eldest of seven children, loves basketball and playing the guitar. Naftali is also very talented academically.

  • Eyal Yifrach

Eyal Yifrach is 19 and from Elad, 25km east of Tel Aviv. He sings and plays guitar– there is a video of him performing at his cousin’s wedding posted on YouTube. Also the eldest of seven siblings, Eyal is a youth counsellor and enjoys playing tennis. He studies at the Shavei Hevron yeshiva.