"Lt. Col. Yuval, the commander of the elite Maglan unit, was going about his routine three weeks ago when he received news that three young boys were abducted.... "We're not done yet," he says. "We need to find the terrorists.""
04 July '14..
Lt. Col. Yuval, the commander of the Israel Defense Forces' Maglan special forces unit, was just going about his day on Friday, June 13, when he received news that three young boys had been abducted.
"I heard about the abduction at the same time the rest of the army heard about it," the 36-year-old officer said. Two days after the discovery of the bodies of Gil-ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel, I sat down with Yuval not far from where the three's remains were found.
"Once word reached the army, units were deployed at the speed of light. Word got out to everyone very quickly, all the way down to the last soldier. Since the army follows orders, we were initially operating in 30-minute intervals. We were told to follow the Hannibal Protocol so not to waste time," he said, referring to the military's directive regarding the potential abduction of Israeli soldiers by enemy forces.
On his own volition, Yuval, who has been commanding Maglan for just two months, decided to recall all of the troops who were on weekend leave. "I was the one who made that decision because I'm quite familiar with these kinds of incidents based on past experience," he said. "We stopped our training sessions. We stopped everything that we were doing. We brought everyone in. We suspended all special operations in southern and the northern Israel. We focused solely on this incident because we understood that you require a great deal of strength for whatever mission comes along."
The unit quickly made its way to the Hebron area "to get a better understanding of what the unit could do to help out," he continued. "I was told that the working assumption was that the three were kidnapped. There were still no indication from the [Palestinian] side that this was an abduction, or any other kind of hostile act. As the day went on, initial indications became focused and by Friday afternoon-early evening, we realized that this was serious
"From the early morning hours, this proved to be an extensive operation. The army amassed forces on the ground to canvass the area, apprehend suspects, and do whatever else was necessary. We knew that the time factor was critical. We knew from past experience that mounting a rapid response would have a significant impact on our search for the teens and the hopes that we would find them alive."
From that moment on and for 18 days, Maglan soldiers participated in dozens of raids and numerous searches on multiple fronts.
"We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nonstop," Yuval said. "We were working like crazy, in double shifts. Weekend leaves were cancelled, the soldiers didn't go home and no one complained. I didn't go home for 28 days. I missed my children's end-of-the-school-year parties. My wife told me, 'Don't come back until you bring those boys home.'
"Sometimes, as an elite unit, you wait for the 'golden tip,' that information that makes you go, 'Bingo.' But there was none of that here. Everyone was engaged in the mission. We managed to spread out wherever needed."
Despite the intelligence, past experience, and the recording of the emergency phone call made to the police, which was given to the military, and in which one can clearly hear gunshots as well as the exultations of the two terrorists, defense officials repeatedly stressed that the military's working premise was that the boys were still alive.
This assumption, which met skepticism by some in the public, was more than just wishful thinking for Yuval and his troops. "I became intimately familiar with the intelligence, but the most obvious, basic premise for me and for my troops was that the boys were alive. Despite the intelligence, despite assessments to the contrary, despite everything -- because intelligence is a matter of perception. One can interpret it one way or another."
"What that means is that every search we went on, every stone we look under and every waterhole we looked into, we did it in order to look for them," he said. "We did fully armed, taking into account the possibility that we might encounter [an ongoing] hostage situation at any moment. Maybe they were hiding in the next cave we search, or were hold out underground somehow."
The premise that the three were alive was mandatory, he said. "As a father, that is an imperative moral and operational working assumption. We had no way of knowing whether one of them was dead and the other two were alive, or anything along those lines, so our working assumption was that all three of them were alive. If you were to ask the soldiers what they were looking for, they would tell you that they were looking for kidnapped boys, who were alive, so they could bring them back to their parents. These are young boys, not soldiers or adults or servicemen. These are teenagers."
'Peeling the terrain like an onion'
As part of the search efforts, Maglan troops entered a number of densely-built, sensitive areas. "We arrested Hamas operatives using the unique capabilities at the unit's disposal," Yuval said. "We managed to sneak into the areas, casbahs and houses, in small formations, and quietly find the people we were looking for. The IDF targeted Hamas' entire infrastructure [in Judea and Samaria] to piece together this puzzle and to generate pressure. The real puzzle came together on the fly, as the events unfolded."
One of the more complex situations the unit encountered took place in the Palestinian village of Tzurif. "This village is considered problematic," the Maglan commander said. "We infiltrated Tzurif using both ground and airborne forces. We arrested two men considered major offenders. We managed to close in on a particular home, and the suspect escaped to a nearby house. Eventually, we succeeded in tracking him down. The idea was to penetrate deep into their territory without anybody knowing we were there. We were able to move undetected for two hours straight, the entire unit. That's part of what makes Maglan unique."
Did you meet any resistance from the Palestinian population?
"There was, but there was no live fire involved. Most of the resistance took place in the refugee camps adjacent to Bethlehem, where they hurled stones, Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs. [The military] tends to keep information involving special operations compartmentalized for the most part, but everything about this case was wide open. Nobody kept their cards close to their vest, and there were no egos involved. This was a seminal event. The sense of mutual guarantee was very strong. Whenever a any intelligence came through, it was immediately given to us. Eventually, we received the photos of the terrorists, but even then, our main objective was to first and foremost to locate the boys."
Aside from arrests, Maglan also took part in the extensive search on the ground, combing through dozens of square miles back and forth. With the aid of the Kfir infantry brigade and a civilian patrol unit, the search eventually led to the discovery of the teens bodies, on Monday.
"The search were extensive," Yuval said. "We set out on the assumption that the boys were in a certain area, but as the pieces of the puzzle come together, we began to explore other possible locations. Eventually, the intelligence became more specific. There was no 'golden tip' that revealed the exact location of the bodies, but rather a picture slowly pieced together as a result of the unit's canvass."
On Saturday evening, two days before the boys' bodies were found, Etzion Brigade Commander Col. Amit Yamin called Yuval and asked to "borrow" Maglan troops for a canvass in his sector of the operation. "I told him that I was sending him a company, a company commander -- my deputy -- and the unit's operational vehicles," Yuval said. "We had three missions to carry out at the same time: arrests in the village of El-Arub with the 401st Brigade; canvasses in Judea; and searches in the Etzion area."
The Maglan contingent that arrived in Etzion and teamed with Kfir Brigade's Lavi Battalion was assigned the task of canvassing an are stretching 2 square kilometers (about 1 square mile) just west of the Palestinian village of Halhul.
"When you are given an area [to search] you dig through it," he said. "You don't limit your search to what is above ground. You need to peel the terrain layer by layer, like an onion. You go to places that look suspicious based on preliminary analyses by qualified experts, like trackers and units whose job it is to study these data."
Sadness and relief
On Monday, Maglan troops came across a field just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) west of Halhul. The army had circled the area following information suggesting there was a well there. In hindsight, the well had nothing to do with the location of the bodies.
"While we were combing the area near the well, which turned out to be quite close to the bodies, one of the civilian scouts working with us noticed that there was some 'disturbed dirt' in a certain section of the terrain," Yuval said.
"This wasn't the first time that something on the ground looked suspicious," he said. "When you're in the middle of a search, the tiniest little thing can seem suspicious. We checked and dug up so many places, and each time we would get our hopes up only to find nothing. We were determined to find them and because we wanted to look everywhere, so we became very suspicious of every spot."
"For two weeks, as we were wandering around under the blazing sun, there were many times when we thought, 'Here it is, we got it.' People were looking under fallen trees and going into wells. We even brought in divers from Unit 669 [the Israeli Air Force's search and rescue unit]. We sometimes used ropes to climb down wells. We borrowed ladders from the police's SWAT unit. After all of these disappointments, you need a great deal of willpower and faith to turn over yet another stone, to examine the next spot, to exhaust the next possibility.
"Right up until the end, the soldiers were doing the same thing," he said. "Those guys, together with the civilian units, understood that there was something unusual in the ground [formation]. They took out shovels from the car and began to dig deeper. They moved whatever they had to -- soil, vegetation, stones. They could have easily missed the site altogether.
Within minutes of digging, he continued, "they understood that this was it. They realized that there was a lead. The army deployed a large number of forces to the area. The deputy company commander who was nearby also arrived. They closed off the entire area. Immediately afterward, the Lavi Battalion showed up, with it the entire army."
News that the teens' remains were found reached Yuval via one of his subordinates, who called him while he was in Hebron on another mission. "I received a phone call from the officer at the scene," he said. "His first report was to the battalion commander on the ground, and then he called me. All he said was, 'It looks as if there's a credible lead here.' I asked him, 'Does it look serious to you?' and he answered, 'Yes'. I got in a car and drove out there. We drove quickly and we got there with other troops. We began to flood the area with troops, to try and discover new evidence. When I got there, I understood that this was the place. Then the forensics unit came, and eventually word came down that unfortunately this is what we have been looking for. The senior officers got there very quickly."
What do you feel at a moment like that?
"Some pride mixed with sadness, because despite the all the signs we believed they were alive. The troops thought they would find the boys alive. For over two weeks, we worked day and night alongside all other army units, all of us looking out for one another. When you embark on such a heart-wrenching journey and you finally reach that kind of end, then there is a great deal of pain. Still, there is also the sense of coming full circle by ending a saga that could have continued for a long time, so everyone also felt a sense of relief. I'm happy that we succeeded in bringing the boys to a proper burial, because otherwise it would have left am irreparable hole in our hearts."
What will you take from this operation?
"Unlike other missions, like the arrest of a wanted terrorist, when we fight for the credit, this time it was a national mission that united everyone. Everyone said that it didn't matter who would end up finding the bodies in the end. We knew we weren't leaving anyone in the field, not the wounded, not the dead, no civilians, and no troops.
"Now, you want to praise your troops. They carried out the mission. But the ending was sad. They expected something else. That's a scar that they will take with them. Still, the disappointment didn't prevent them from heading out that night to make more arrests in order to complete the mission, which has yet to conclude.
"The operation is not over," Yuval said. "We're not done yet. We need to find the terrorists. That is when it will end. We are still in the middle of an operation. Eventually, we will find a lead as to the whereabouts of the kidnappers. The hourglass has turned over for these murderers, who had no mercy for three young boys. We won't rest until we reach them."