JERUSALEM — A pair of tefillin, the leather phylacteries Jews use for morning prayer; a single sandal; shattered spectacles. These were among the clues that led to Monday’s grisly discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped June 12 as they hitchhiked home from their West Bank yeshivas.
“It was kind of a puzzle,” a senior Israeli security official said Tuesday morning, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do otherwise. “There was no one golden piece of information.”
Funerals for the three teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach — were underway Tuesday afternoon, with a joint service and burial planned for 5:30 p.m. in Modi’in, a suburb between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Both the Israeli cabinet and the Palestinian Authority leadership had scheduled meetings in the evening to plan responses to the developments.
It remains unclear whether the kidnappers had planned to kill the teenagers, or decided to do so rather than hold them hostage after one of the Israelis managed to make a cellphone call to a police hotline.
The two-minute call — played on Israeli television Tuesday after a gag order on its contents was lifted — was considered a prank by the police, delaying the start of the search. On the recording, Gilad says calmly and quietly in Hebrew, “I’ve been kidnapped,” and then one of the men believed to be one of his captors says — also in Hebrew — “Put your head down” and, in Arabic, orders him to hand over the phone.
The police operator says, “Hello” a bunch of times, then, “Where are you?” as an Israeli radio station plays in the background. Many Israeli journalists have said they can hear a gunshot during the call, though it was not apparent in the part that was broadcast.
Only hours after the teenagers were reported missing, a police spokesman said Tuesday, the authorities found the tefillin in the burned-out hull of a Hyundai i35 that was stolen from central Israel a month before. DNA evidence from the car, which had been left in the West Bank village of Dura, perhaps a 20-minute ride from where the teenagers had last been seen trying to hitchhike home, was quickly matched to their parents.
The authorities, unsure if the mission was rescue or recovery, used intelligence gathered through signal interception and interrogations of arrested Palestinians and deployed thousands of soldiers and civilians to comb caves and cisterns in the vast stretch of hilly fields around Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city.
A break came Thursday: the discovery of a sandal that looked like one of the boys’, said the police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld. Then, just before 1 a.m. on Sunday, the police brought a pair of spectacles found in the field to an eyeglasses store, where the owner, Shalom Friedman, confirmed that he had sold them to Mr. Yifrach.
The eyeglasses were “completely smashed,” Mr. Friedman said in a video interview posted on Tuesday on the Israeli news site Ynet. “It was a chilling moment.”
Finally, on Monday at about 5 p.m., amid agricultural lands worked by the family of one of the suspects, search teams including volunteer hiking guides removed a bush that looked out of place, then a pile of stones, and then three bodies, whose identities were confirmed by forensics at about 3 a.m. Tuesday.