ALON SHVUT — The group of several dozen seventh-graders had just finished school and were preparing to return to their homes in this bloc of communities near Bethlehem in the area Israel acquired in 1967. A few of the boys, their skullcaps 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.
The mood is tense here among these post-1967 towns. It has been more than three days since a trio of teenagers were kidnapped on their way home from school late at night. Thousands of Israeli soldiers have surrounded the West Bank town of Hebron, about 10 miles from here, believing that is where the kidnappers are holding the boys, who studied at a boarding school in the area.
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,” Sharon Katz, a theater director who lives in nearby Efrat said. “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 many residents here.
“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 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 today are going to the West Bank town of Hebron.
The hospitality stand was started in memory of Shmuel Gillis, a doctor from this 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,” the soft-spoken artist said, 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 communities are just 10 miles outside Jerusalem, where many of the residents commute to 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,” Noa Divo, 18, said as she waited for a ride. “Most people stop to offer rides, and it’s really a good way of life. Of course, my first reaction to the kidnapping was fear, but it’s much more convenient than the buses, and it saves money.”
There were fewer hitchhikers than usual, but those who continued said it was too much a part of their lives to quit.
“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.”
The mayor said 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 similar kidnapping attempts in the past year. Theater director Katz said she lets her four sons hitchhike but not her daughter.
“I told my daughter when she started going to school outside of town that she is not allowed to hitchhike,” said Katz. “I told her, ‘No matter where you are, you are to call me, and I’ll pick you up.’ I’ve picked her up at all kinds of places at all hours of the day and night.”
Others say they simply have no choice.
Gillis said her daughter is finishing nursing school and has to be at the hospital in Jerusalem by 7 a.m. The only way to get there on time, she explained, is by hitchhiking.
The proper Israeli response to the kidnappings is also being debated here. Some call for harsher measures against the Palestinians; others call for more Jews to move here.
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 here seemed to be against any 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.”
Linda Gradstein writes for The Media Line.