The mothers of three Israeli teenagers believed to have been abducted in the West Bank took their plight to the United Nations on Tuesday, as Israel moved to downscale the military search for the teens.
“It is wrong to take children, innocent boys … and use them as instruments of any struggle. It is cruel,” said Rachel Frenkel, speaking to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Frenkel’s 16-year-old son, Naftali, is among the three teens who disappeared 12 days ago while hitchhiking home in the West Bank. Thousands of troops were deployed throughout Palestinian territory on a massive effort to find the three -- Naftali, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah.
But amid spreading international criticism of Israeli actions and concern that continuing the high-profile operation among civilians during the approaching Muslim holy month of Ramadan could lead to violence, the Cabinet voted Tuesdayto scale back field operations while continuing the search and focusing on intelligence efforts.
Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told reporters the operation would continue as long as needed. The more time that passes, “the greater the concern for their fate,” Gantz said. The army’s working assumption remains that they are alive, he said.
In a shift of tone on the disappearance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced appreciation for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ condemnation of kidnapping, although he urged him to break his recent reconciliation pact with Hamas.
“This is the only way we can move forward,” Netanyahu said in Jerusalem during a meeting with Romanian counterpart Victor Ponta.
Hamas, regarded by Israel as a terrorist organization, agreed to the formation recently of an officially non-partisan Palestinian Authority government in cooperation with the other major Palestinian faction, Fatah.
Israel is convinced that the youths were abducted by Hamas. Hamas officials have praised the action but neither they nor any other known group or individuals have claimed responsibility.
Over a week and a half, troops searched 1,800 locations. More than 350 Palestinians were arrested and four were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
Palestinian residents of the Hebron area began to resume daily routines Tuesday, as some roadblocks and travel restrictions were lifted, local news reports said.
In Geneva, Frenkel spoke on behalf of all three mothers as Iris Yifrah and Bat-Galim Shaer sat behind her in the U.N. auditorium.
Speaking in a strong, clear voice, Frenkel expressed their gratitude to United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for condemning the kidnapping and the International Red Cross for demanding their immediate return. At the same time, she said, “I believe much more can be done, should be done, by so many.”
“We just want them back at home, in their beds, we just want to hug them again,” she said.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is a tough room for any Israel cause. In the debate leading up to Fraenkel’s address, numerous delegates from Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian countries criticized Israel for violating Palestinian rights, accusing it of collectively punishing Palestinians and carrying out war crimes.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.