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After West Bank Kidnapping, 2 Mothers Embody a Divide
The New York Times

NOF AYALON, Israel — It was about 4 a.m. on a Friday when the police banged on Rachel Fraenkel’s door in this Jerusalem suburb looking for her 16-year-old son, Naftali, and a friend he studies with at a yeshiva in the West Bank. The night before, Naftali had texted his parents saying he was going to hitchhike back home. They had no idea he had never arrived.

“I was praying maybe he did something stupid and irresponsible,” Ms. Fraenkel recalled, “but I know my boy isn’t stupid, and he isn’t irresponsible.”

It was almost exactly a week later, just past 5 a.m., that Aida Abdel Aziz Dudeen was startled awake by a gunshot, then banging on her own door in the West Bank town of Dura. Her family had locked the door the night before to keep her 15-year-old son, Mohammed, from confronting the Israeli Army after days of house-to-house searches and arrest raids. The key was still under Ms. Dudeen’s pillow.

Israeli troops detained Abdel Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, on Monday at his home in the West Bank city of Hebron.Israel Demands Palestinian Leader’s Help After AbductionsJUNE 16, 2014
“I didn’t imagine he would jump out the window,” she said. “I saw a cousin at the door shouting, ‘Mohammed is a martyr!’ I said, ‘Mohammed who?’ He said, ‘Your son.’ He showed me a shirt with blood. I wanted to know who died because I still believed my son was inside the house.”

More than two weeks after the abduction of Naftali and two other Israeli teenagers, Israel’s security crackdown has raised questions about the asymmetry of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the value of lives on both sides. Mohammed, who witnesses said was among a crowd of youths who hurled stones at Israeli soldiers storming their neighborhood that morning, is one of five Palestinians fatally shot by soldiers in the West Bank; three more have been killed by airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.

Most Israelis see the missing teenagers as innocent civilians captured on their way home from school, and the Palestinians who were killed as having provoked soldiers. Palestinians, though, see the very act of attending yeshiva in a West Bank settlement as provocation, and complain that the crackdown is collective punishment against a people under illegal occupation.

Ms. Fraenkel and Ms. Dudeen share little aside from deep religiosity and empty beds where their sons should be. But both have been thrust into conspicuous roles in their side-by-side societies, reflecting the conflict’s human costs.

Ms. Fraenkel, 45, is now the most visible of what are being called the “Three Mothers,” the latest in a series of Israeli parents symbolizing the sacrifice generations of Israeli children make growing up amid enemies. She has become an international public figure, traveling to Geneva to speak to a United Nations committee, giving television interviews, meeting Israel’s president and prime minister.

Ms. Dudeen, 39, is the mother of yet another of the thousands celebrated as martyrs in the decades-long struggle against Israel. She has hardly left home since Mohammed’s huge funeral. She has been comforted by his classmates bringing sweets, but is still seething over the Palestinian prime minister’s failure to offer sympathy in person.

“My son has died for his homeland,” said Ms. Dudeen, who is three months pregnant with her seventh child. “The flames in my heart are huge. I’ll keep crying for him all my life.”

Ms. Fraenkel, studiously avoiding political issues like whether Palestinian prisoners should be released in exchange for the teenagers, as in previous abductions, has begun to consult experts about a long-haul campaign to maintain momentum.

“Patience is a very hard thing. At some point at night I say, ‘Enough, I just want him home,’ ” she said of Naftali, the second of her seven children. “I feel bad wording it like this, but if God forbid, God forbid, God forbid a child of yours would be in a similar situation, would you say to do any less than the utmost?”

Ms. Fraenkel was at her laptop in the kitchen, searching for photographs of Naftali’s sandals, the latest request from investigators. Her youngest, 4-year-old Shlomo, burst in from nursery school. “I made a heart for Naftali!” he said, unfurling a fluorescent-green poster.

Shlomo climbed onto her lap, thrilled at snapshots of his last birthday party, of the children in Purim costumes, a family camping trip. “If you see a picture of Naftali, tell me, we’ll look at his sandals,” Ms. Fraenkel told the little one. Then, to her 14-year-old daughter, “Ayala, you know all these details — are Naftali’s sandals black or brown?”

It was Thursday: two weeks after the abduction, two days after her appeal to the United Nations. Things had started to slow down.

Close friends visited in the morning, along with two of Ayala’s teachers, though Ms. Fraenkel spent much of the time on the phone with a German journalist. There was a long session with social workers, a meeting with the speaker of Israel’s Parliament, a synagogue service in which Ms. Fraenkel’s were among few dry eyes.

“Do I believe this is going to end in a positive way? Absolutely,” she told the German reporter, though there has been no ransom demand or proof that the three teenagers are still alive. “Not that I don’t consider other things. I’m not in denial. If I have to fall apart, I’ll have time to do it later.”

Born in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, to Americans who immigrated to Israel in 1955, Ms. Fraenkel, like Naftali, is a United States citizen. She stressed that Nof Ayalon, which spills slightly over the 1949 armistice line dividing Israel from the West Bank, is not a settlement.

Married nearly 22 years to Avi, a lawyer, she is part of a vanguard of Orthodox women teaching Jewish texts and using them to answer queries on a hotline and website.

“I have a spiritual world, but it doesn’t lessen any pain and it doesn’t promise me anything because God doesn’t work for me,” she said. “It’s not some kind of trick that if I pray hard enough, he’ll just show up.”

Between interviews, meetings and prayer rallies, Ms. Fraenkel went to 6-year-old Naamah’s ballet-class party and Shlomo’s end-of-preschool celebration. “Supper tries to be normal,” she said. Normal, except that it is provided by a neighborhood committee that delivers still-hot tin trays three times a day.

A soldier left the family his beret. American immigrants noticed Ms. Fraenkel likes to wear purple, and brought a piece from their jewelry box. Most strangers are kept outside, where a notebook collects their messages.

“Everybody gives a piece of his heart,” she said.

There are no colorful banners or graffiti commemorating Mohammed outside the Dudeen home in Dura, only a clothesline filled with six black abayas, after a mother’s week of mourning.

Hundreds have come here, too — neighbors and strangers, Palestinian cabinet ministers, the governor of Hebron. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah of the Palestinian Authority sent his deputy on the fourth day, and on the eighth there were faxes from Mr. Hamdallah and President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Our prime minister can’t come to offer condolences?” she said. “Shame on you. I say to Mahmoud Abbas, I voted for you to sit on the president’s chair, but you did nothing to make me feel like I’m the mother of a martyr.”

She quit school at 15 to marry, and is proud that her 20-year-old daughter, Ashwaq, is now studying at Polytechnic Institute in Hebron.

Her husband, Jihad, has for 10 years been doing construction in Israel, now earning about $45 a day in Modiin, not far from Nof Ayalon. They worry he may lose his permit. “We have breakfast, we’re not sure we’ll have a lunch,” she said. “I remember I had no milk for Mohammed, so I gave him water and sugar.”

Mohammed was something of a troublemaker, his mother said, but had never been arrested. He loved to ride his bicycle, and sold corn on the street to earn money for the family. He did only O.K. in school, she said, “but he was big in his dreams.” The night before he was killed, he promised his father he would rise early to bring bricks to the rooftop, where they planned to build so the family would no longer have to cram into three second-floor rooms.

Ms. Dudeen said her family was not affiliated with Hamas — which Israel says is behind the kidnapping — or any other Palestinian faction. “I want my homeland to be liberated from Israeli colonialism,” she said, her grief mixed with a bit of pride. “When the Israeli soldier picked up his rifle against Mohammed, he did not turn his back, he did not fear.”

Asked what she would say to the mothers of the abducted Israelis, Ms. Dudeen started with, “If there was a kidnapping,” reflecting the rampant Palestinian suspicion that Israel staged the whole thing as a pretext for routing Hamas from the West Bank. Then she said, “My son is gone forever, he will never come home — their sons might still be alive.”

Ms. Fraenkel said she was “extremely upset” when she heard what happened in Dura. “I really don’t want any Palestinian to get hurt,” she said. “So what am I supposed to do? Let the kids rot there? We’re just looking for the children.”

Pressed on the question of freeing prisoners if the kidnappers demand it, Ms. Fraenkel said that when Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years, was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in 2011, “I was happy to see Gilad Shalit — it doesn’t mean I think the whole thing was wise.”

“I think parents should not be taken into account,” she added. “The state of Israel cherishes life, but it has to cherish the next kidnapped kids, too.”

Ms. Fraenkel said she had “discovered there are sleeping pills in this world” during the crisis, but hardly ate. Ms. Dudeen forces food down because of her pregnancy, but sleep does not come as she curls up on the mattress that was Mohammed’s.

If she has a boy, she plans to name him Mohammed. “All pregnant women in the neighborhood,” she said, “will name them Mohammed.”

Jodi Rudoren reported from Nof Ayalon, and Dura, the West Bank. Said Ghazali contributed reporting from Dura, and Rina Castelnuovo from Nof Ayalon.

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