A nation shuts its eyes and prays

Students hug before a prayer at the shul in Kfar Etzion where two of the missing teenagers studied

Students hug before a prayer at the shul in Kfar Etzion where two of the missing teenagers studied

At dusk, the front garden of the house where yeshivah student Naftali Frenkel lived until his kidnap is bathed in light which breaks through tightly-drawn curtains.

Policemen, armed with automatic weapons and flanked by security volunteers, circle the property.

Neighbours hurry by, making their apologies to journalists, keen for a comment from someone who knows.

An ersatz beit midrash under a small plastic canopy a few yards away provides a space in which to pray for the safe return of Naftali, 16, and two friends snatched while hitchhiking home near Gush Etzion.

The Frenkels wake each day to this scene — and to the agony of not knowing what has happened to the “sweet, fun, serious” teenager they last saw two weeks ago.

This is a very private family. The need to speak publicly does not come easily to them. We request an interview, and Ittael Frenkel, Naftali’s aunt, comes out briefly and draws up a plastic chair in a dark alleyway next to the house.

She says: “We just want to see them back home, here, soon. Healthy and in one piece.”On the progress of the search, she says: “We are being kept informed… [but] we have no new information.”

Naftali was kidnapped along with his classmate Gilad Shaar, also 16, and a friend, Eyal Yifrach, 19, as they attempted to thumb a ride home from their yeshivah last Thursday night.

For Israelis, their plight is depressingly familiar. But the déjà vu has not stopped an outpouring of national concern. On Sunday night, a prayer vigil was held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, led by the chief rabbis. Similar events were held in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.

There is even an international campaign for their release on social media networks — under the hashtag #Bring BackOurBoys — and in rallies around the world.

Israeli intelligence sources believe Hamas was behind the kidnapping, although the Palestinian organisation has not acknowledged responsibility.

The IDF’s Operation Brother’s Keeper has two aims: to find the boys and to seriously degrade Hamas’s organisational capabilities. Around 250 Hamas members have been arrested in the West Bank, including 51 former prisoners released under the Gilad Shalit deal nearly three years ago.

On Tuesday, the boys’ families met at the Frenkel family home in Nof Ayalon. In a statement, Naftali’s mother, Rachel, said: “We trust the security forces and pray for the safety of the soldiers. We miss our sons and are waiting to hug them when they return.”

On Wednesday they met Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon in Tel Aviv. Mr Yaalon told them that the working assumption of the IDF is that the boys are still alive but, as the search continues without tangible results, hopes are beginning to fade.

According to Israeli military sources, Palestinian Authority security forces are assisting Israel with the search.

UK leaders have condemned the abduction of three teenagers.

Speaking before more than 1,000 people at Hendon United Synagogue last Sunday, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis called for the safe return of the yeshivah students. He said: “The house of Israel is in sorrow, and we stand with you and feel your pain”

Rabbi Mirvis has issued a special prayer for the kidnapped youngsters, which will be available on his office’s website before Shabbat.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I strongly condemn the abduction of three Israeli youths in the West Bank. My thoughts are with their families and I hope for their safe return home soon.”

Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband said at a Labour Friends of Israel lunch on Tuesday: “All our thoughts today are with the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers.”

Last updated: 2:16pm, June 19 2014