Thursday, Jul 11, 2024

Shocking Massacre in Itamar

In one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in recent years, a father, mother and three young hildren were murdered in their home last Shabbos in the northern West Bank community of Itamar, not far from Sh'chem. The victims were Rabbi Udi Fogel, hy”d, 36, his wife Rut, hy”d, 35, along with their three-month-old infant girl, Hadas, hy”d, and two boys, Elad, hy”d, 4, and Yoav, hy”d, 11. They were brutally stabbed to death by two terrorists who had jumped the town's security fence. The electronic sensors in the fence registered the intrusion, but a security guard who investigated dismissed it as a false alarm. The terrorists also broke into the empty house of a neighbor who was on vacation before entering the Fogel home. The terrorists overlooked two other Fogel boys, Ro'i, 8, and Yishai, 2 who were asleep when their home was invaded. The third Fogel child to survive was their 12 year-old-daughter, Tamar, who was at the house of a neighbor, Rabbi and Mrs. Yaakov Cohen when the attack took place. She was the first to discover that something was wrong when she went home later and was surprised to find the front door locked.

The evening had started with an Oneg Shabbos for Tamar and her friends, including Rabbi Cohen’s daughter, at the Fogel home, including a dvar Torah given by Rut Fogel. The Oneg broke up around 10 pm, and as was the custom, the girls walked one another to their homes. When Tamar finally returned to her house after 12, she was surprised to find muddy tracks, and the front door to the house locked.


She then returned to the Cohen home and asked her friend to wake her father, who is a rebbi at a yeshiva in Itamar, and ask him for help.


“The girls woke me up, I grabbed a weapon in case it was necessary, and when we got to the house we saw traces of mud everywhere,”Rabbi Cohen said.


They then saw through a window Tamar’s brother Ro’i, sleeping on the couch in the living room, and made enough noise to wake him up. When he came to the door to let his sister in, Rabbi Cohen turned around and returned home, thinking that the situation was resolved. He returned moments later when Tamar discovered the massacre and ran from the house, shreiking.


Cohen at first did not think the incident was terrorist-related, “but when the daughter entered and screamed in horror, I realized something terrible had happened. I fired two bullets into the air to alert the security guards, searched the house and found the boy who opened the door, and the two-year-old who was sleeping in the parents’ room.”




First aid paramedics rushed to the scene, and were confronted with a horrific scene of bloody slaughter. Paramedic Kabaha Muayua described what he saw: “We could not help the first four stabbing victims. Following an inspection of the scene I spotted a young child (Elad) who still had a pulse. We engaged in lengthy resuscitation efforts but had to pronounce him dead. The murder scene was shocking. Kids’ toys right next to pools of blood.”


The two parents and the three-month-old baby were found in the master bedroom. According to the army and Shin Bet, the terrorists entered the home through the picture window in the living room, overlooked the child sleeping on the couch under some blankets, and entered the master bedroom. The terrorists first attacked the father, and the infant sleeping in the father’s bed, slashing their throats.


Apparently, the mother was in the bathroom at the time. She was attacked when she opened the bathroom door, and after trying to fight back, fell mortally wounded at the threshhold.


The terrorists then murdered the 11-year-old who was reading in his bed, and stabbed the 4-year-old boy twice in the chest. The terrorists locked the front door and left the way they came. They then escaped over the same point of the electronic security fence where they had entered, more than two and a half hours earlier, still undetected by the town’s security force.


Army trackers did not arrive at the scene until more than an hour after the terrorists escaped. They found tracks leading to the nearby Arab village of Avrata. By that time, the murderers were long gone.




Itamar is one of four West Bank communities, including Bracha,Yitzhar and Elon Moreh, located on mountainsides overlooking Har Grizim and Har Eval. In addition to its yeshivos, the town is known as a center of organic farming, whose products are marketed all over Israel. Many residents earn their living by raising olives, goats and sheep, and by marketing derivative products, such as cheese and olive oil.


The Fogel family had originally lived in the Gaza community of Netzarim. After they were removed from their home during the 2005 disengagement, they moved to Ariel and then to Itamar. Rabbi Fogel was a rebbe in the Yeshiva Gavoah of Rabbi Avichai Ronsky, former Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army. His wife, Ruti was a teacher in the nearby settlement of Ma’ale Levonah.




The town has been the target of major attacks before. In June, 2002, a terrorist armed with an assault rifle entered Itamar and barricaded himself in the home of the Sabo family. He shot and killed Rachel Sabo, hy”d, and three of her seven children, Neriya, hy”d, age 15, Tzvi, hy”d, age 12, and Avishai, hy”d, age 5. Yossi Twito, hy”d, who commanded the settlement’s security team, was also shot to death when he arrived and charged toward the Sabo house during the attack.


The previous month, another terrorist infiltrated the settlement’s fence. He reached the basketball court of Itamar’s Chitzim yeshiva high school, where he shot and killed Gilad Stieglitz, hy”d, a 14-year-old talmid, and wounded another student. The terrorist then entered the yeshiva building, where he shot and killed two more talmidim, Netanel Riachi, hy”d, and Avraham Siton, hy”d. The terrorist was eventually shot and killed by one of the yeshiva’s dorm counselors.


In July 2002, a terrorist armed with two knives broke into the home of David and Orna Mimran and tried to stab them. Although wounded, they successfully fought back and survived. The terrorist was ultimately shot and killed by an army officer.


The only other major terrorist incident after that took place in August 2004, when Shlomo Miller, who had replaced Twito as the town’s security coordinator, was shot and killed by an Arab.




After the 2002 attacks, Itamar’s security was beefed up with an advanced electronic security surveillance fence, as well as an inner barbed wire fence. The fences are patrolled and maintained by settlement security officials and six private security guards, including two on duty at a central security office, to monitor the fence sensors.


Since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the army has significantly reduced the size of its forces on active duty in the West Bank at any one time, in light of the significant reduction of the number of terrorist attacks, and the need for more soldier training time.


Today, army patrols in the West Bank are designed to maintain “peripheral security,” between settlements, while leaving routine patrols within settlement boundaries to their own security guards. However, army forces are supposed to be nearby at all times and arrive within minutes when local security guards raise the alarm that an intrusion has taken place.


Settlements are usually patrolled by civilian security teams, reinforced by private guards from companies such as Modi’in Ezrachi. Because Itamar is so close to Sh’chem, and near a number of hostile Arab villages, its six-man security team is larger than those found in most settlements.




Over the past two years, most West Bank terrorist attacks have been carried out by individual Arabs with little skill or training The Army and Shin Bet have succeeded in capturing or killing most of the wanted terrorists in the area, in part thanks to the increased security cooperation of the Palestinian Authority.


In recent weeks, friction between the Jews and Arabs on the West Bank had increased, leading to warnings by army and security experts of an increased likelihood of a terrorist attack.




On Friday night, the initial breach of the security fence was registered at the central control room at 8:59 pm. One of the private guards was sent to the site to look for a cut in the fence, but the terrorists had jumped over the fence. The guard found no signs of infiltration and decided that it was a false alarm. The same thing happened at midnight, when the terrorists left. Army troops who were stationed on the next hill just a half-mile away were not summoned until Rabbi Cohen raised the alarm a half hour later.


According to a man who used to work as a security guard in Itamar, hundreds of false alarms are set off by the fence each month, especially during the winter. They are triggered by the wind, rain, tree branches or animals. “You can’t treat them all seriously and call in the army every time,” he said. Standard procedure called for a local army company commander and a tracker to be called in to determine if a terrorist infiltration has taken place.




Army trackers later discovered that the Fogel house was not the original target of the terrorists. After penetrating the security fence, they first entered the home of the Chai family, who were away in Yerushalayim. Two other couples had planned to stay in the Chai home over Shabbos to join in the birthday celebration of a neighbor. However, both couples cancelled at the last minute, one because the husband, who was serving in the army, could not get a pass to leave his base, and the other because the wife, who was in the seventh month of pregnancy, had taken ill, and was hospitalized as a medical precaution. As a result of that Yad Hashem, that house was empty when the terrorists broke in, and both couples escaped the tragic fate of the Fogels.


The husband of the woman who spent Shabbos in the hospital, attended the levaya for the Fogels Sunday, and said that he was going to bench gomel Monday, “because we were only a few hours away from crossing between life and death.” [This is not a halachic ruling.]


Even paramedic veterans of the intifada were shocked by the brutality of the attack on the Fogel family. The army said that it was so outraged by the viciousness of the attack that they would not ask the Palestinian Authority for assistance in tracking down the terrorists responsible. In the past, when PA forces apprehended wanted terrorists, they held them only briefly in jail, and then quietly let them go. The army does not want those responsible for this heinous act to ever be let go.




The Palestinian Authority leadership, including PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad issued unconvincing condemnations of the attack, based upon their disapproval of all violence that targets civilians, “regardless of who was behind it or the reason for it.” But that was not nearly good enough to satisfy outraged Israelis.


Prime Minister Netanyahu angrily rejected the “weak and mumbled” statements of regret issued by PA leaders immediately after receiving word of the Fogel murder as totally insufficient. “This is not the way to condemn or fight terrorism,” Netanyahu said. He condemned those nations that always rush to the UN Security Council to condemn Israel whenever “it planned a house or laid a tile somewhere,” but are silent when the time comes to issue a “strong condemnation of the murder of Jewish babies. I expect them to issue this condemnation immediately, without balance, without understanding, without justification, because there is no justification, no excuse and no forgiveness for the murder of babies,” he said.




Of course, Netanyahu wasn’t really expecting the nations of the world to react appropriately to the horrific murder of an innocent Jewish family, and anybody who did was, once again, sorely disappointed. Most of the international news media virtually ignored the attack. The Associated Press used its coverage to suggest that the Fogel family along with the other residents of Itamar are some of Israel’s “most radical settlers,” implying approval of their killing. The AP story also was careful to describe the incident as “killings” rather than the cold blooded murder of parent and children in their beds. The BBC coverage also misleadingly suggested that the terrorists deliberately “spared” the two Fogel children in the house who survived, rather than simply having overlooked them.




The Israeli prime minister later received a condolence call from Abbas, the first direct conversation between the two men in months. But Netanyahu was still furious with the Palestinian leader. He told Abbas that it was insufficient to condemn such attacks only because they “are against Palestinian interests” — as the Palestinians have done many times before. Netanyahu angrily insisted that Abbas must clearly condemn such attacks simply because “the murder of children in their sleep” is morally unacceptable.


The prime minister noted that while Abbas and Fayyad make moderate sounding statements intended for international consumption, they continue to permit and even encourage anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian society and the PA-controlled media. “A society that allows wild incitement like this, leads to the murder of children,” Netanyahu said.




In a stern and somber broadcast speech to the nation on Motzoei Shabbos, Netanyahu voiced his “deep outrage” over the slaughter of the Fogel family “I demand that the PA stop the incitement taking place daily in its schools, mosques, and in the media it controls. The time has come to stop this double talk.”


The military arm of Abbas’ own Fatah faction, known as the Al Aqsa Brigades, later issued a statement claiming responsibility for the brutal slaughter of the Fogel family. It called the attack a “heroic operation” and justified it as a “natural response” to “Israeli crimes of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.” It inaccurately said that the “combatant” who “killed all five Zionists who were in the house . . . “returned home safely after conducting his mission successfully.”


In the streets of the southern Gaza city of Rafiach, under the control of Hamas, there was, at least, no attempt to hide the feelings of the people. They celebrated the news of the murder of the Fogel family with joyous street demonstrations and the distribution of candy and sweets.


Army Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as the director of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, promised to do everything possible to catch the terrorists responsible for the attack. General Gantz said, “We will not rest until the murderers are in our hands. This is a bestial act perpetrated by barbarians. It is impossible to grasp the horrendous scene before us. We are working non-stop on the intelligence and operational fronts.”




Netanyahu offered the country’s condolences, “supporting and embracing” the survivors, relatives and friends of the Fogel family, and “our brothers, the residents of West Bank. He urged them to “not let their spirits falter,” and promised that “first and foremost security and Israel, not terrorism, will determine the final settlement map.” He also called for “restraint and responsibly” by those who mourned the murder of the Fogels, and warned them not to try to take the law into their own hands.


Netanyahu also spoke after Shabbos with Udi’s father, Chaim Fogel, one of the founders of the West Bank settlement of Neve Tzuf, who will be raising his son’s surviving children. The prime minister promised to do everything possible to help the family, and to follow their progress personally. The prime minister was also menachem avel, personally visiting the father of Rut Fogel, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Yishai, who was formerly a rebbi at Machon Meir in Yerushalayim.


The mourning father and grandfather of the victims said that the prime minister told him that “he felt great sorrow and that the entire people of Israel are part of that sorrow.” Then the two men hugged each other.


President Shimon Peres characterized the killings as “one of the most ugliest and most despicable events I have ever seen.” He added that, “the murder of parents and their very young children in their beds on Shabbos, indicates a loss of humanity. There is no religion in the world or any faith that allows for such atrocious acts. There are no words of consolation in the face of this devastation. Our hearts are with the orphans and with the community of Itamar during this extremely difficult time.”




The levaya for the victims Sunday afternoon in Yerushalayaim was attended by tens of thousands of people. The crowds of people coming to attend from around the country forced police to block the main entrance to the city


Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger told the mourners that “the murderers did succeed, but only in uniting us. No one can remain apathetic” after this outrage, he said.


He said that the most appropriate response to the attack was to continue building Jewish homes in Yerushalayim and the West Bank.


Former Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau said, “There are times when there are no words and when one feels helpless with pain and anger. . . What can you say when you see a three-month-old baby stabbed to death? We read the start of Sefer Vayikra this past Shabbos that begins with sacrifices, but who thought of sacrifices such as these?”


Rabbi Lau then turned to the surviving Fogel children and said, “Your mother and father need you. You are the ones who will say the Kaddish for them.”


Hillel Ben Yishai, the brother of Rut Fogel, sobbed that the victims were “holy and pure and the Jewish people will come to know who they were — holy and pure. No one was sweet as Hadas,” the baby daughter of the Fogels who was among those murdered. “The people of Israel are strong, like Rut, an iron lady,” he added.


Vice Premier Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon read from a paper, condemning the Palestinian Authority and its “education of violence,” teaching their children that “from the Jordan [River] to the sea, Jews have no rights,” was the root cause of the attack in Itamar. He also predicted that the PA will show its true colors by treating the murderers of the Fogel family as heroes, naming city squares after them, and that this makes any peace agreement signed with these Palestinian leaders worthless.


Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that as revenge for the murder of the Fogels, “we will live, we will continue to build and to plant, we will continue to hold onto Israel: in Itamar, in Beit Chagai, in Chevron and Yerushalayim, everywhere and at any time.”




Surprisingly, Rabbi Ben Yishai agreed to a radio interview the morning after the levaya. When he was asked why, he responded, “I have worked in education many years, and as an educator, I try to strengthen and teach people faith. I understand that I cannot be satisfied with words and that I also must implement the same principles on which I have educated others. This is a test of my faith, and therefore I agreed to be interviewed.”


He added that his family and the parents of Udi Fogel “will take upon ourselves the difficult task and pave a path for their grandchildren so that their lives will be victorious. Their mother and father will pray for them from Heaven, their grandfathers and grandmothers will give them a lot of love, and the people of Israel will hug them and encourage them to grow and continue in the path of their parents.”


Rabbi Ben Yishai also said that he was grateful that he and his wife were away when police came to their home to inform them of the killings, so that the terrible news was not able to shter their Shabbos.


As Udi Fogel’s parents sat shiva in their home in Neve Tsuf, his father, Chaim recalled the terrible night when authorities came to his home to tell him the news, and then brought him to his son’s house so he could bring home his surviving grandchildren. Chaim’s mother recalled the last time she saw her son and his family, when they got together to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Adar II. “At least they had a taste of Purim,” she said.


Also, the eldest surviving daughter of the family, 12-year-old Tamar, promised her relatives, “I will be strong and succeed in overcoming this. I understand the task that stands before me, and I will be a mother to my siblings.”




The day after the assault, the White House issued a statement saying, “we call on the Palestinian Authority to unequivocally condemn this terrorist attack and for the perpetrators of this heinous crime to be held accountable.


“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the murder of five Israelis in a terrorist attack in the northern West Bank, and we offer our condolences to their loved ones and to the Israeli people. There is no possible justification for the killing of parents and children in their home.”


UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon issued a statement condemning the attack.


British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the “friends and relatives of the family killed in Itamar have my deepest sympathies,” and that “this was an act of incomprehensible cruelty and brutality which I utterly condemn.”


German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle condemned the “cruel and heinous” slayings, saying “nothing can justify such attacks.”


France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said France “condemns all acts of violence in the occupied territories and calls for maximum restraint in order to prevent deterioration in the situation.”


Quartet special envoy Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, said “this brutal and appalling murder is shocking and deplorable,” and sent his “deepest condolences and sympathy to those remaining members of the family and to the community.”




On Motzoei Shabbos, Netanyahu and Barak convened a special ministerial committee to decide on an appropriately symbolic action in response to the attack on Itamar. The ministers agreed to approve the construction of 500 new Jewish homes in the major West Bank settlement blocks. The Israeli government then informed the White House of the decision, as a fait accompli, over the inevitable objections of Palestinian Authority officials.


In Washington, a State Department spokesman said that the US government was “deeply concerned” over the announcement that more Jewish housing in the West Bank had been approved. The spokesman reiterated the position that Israeli settlements are “illegitimate” and “run counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations” between Israelis and Palestinians. However, Netanyahu’s spokesman said that since the new construction was to take place in areas of the West Bank which Israel is expected to keep, it posed “no contradiction” to peace efforts which have been stalled since September by the Palestinian refusal to participate in direct negotiations.


During the ministerial meeting, Defense Minister Barak argued against several alternatives, such as starting a new settlement, or expanding Itamar, which is not within the major settlement blocs that are expected to remain in Israel’s permanent control.


The newly approved housing projects are to be built in Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, the communities in Gush Etzion, and Kiryat Sefer. New construction of Jewish housing has resumed in the West Bank at a brisk pace since the expiration of the voluntary construction freeze in September, but those were all for the thousands of building projects which had already received final government approval. The action of the ministerial committee was the first time since the freeze expired that the government has approved new building plans in the West Bank.




Reaction to the attack from other Israeli political leaders fell along predictable ideological lines. Right wing figures, such as National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein placed the responsibility upon Abbas and the PA educational system that teaches “hatred of Jews and presents child killers as role models,” discrediting the PA as a legitimate partner for peace.


Likud MK Danny Danon blamed the attack on Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s “lax security policies in the West Bank,” and his “irresponsible removal of checkpoints and the abdication of our security needs to the Palestinian Authority. . . Barak should be concentrating on protecting the citizens of Israel and not pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu into ill-advised ‘peace’ plans,” Danon said.


Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman put some of the blame for the attack on left wing Israeli newspapers for “separating settlers from Israelis living on the other side of the Green Line.”


On the left end of the Israeli political spectrum, Labor MK Isaac Herzog argued that the attack in Itamar should not be allowed to achieve its goal of “preventing diplomatic progress” or used as an “excuse by the prime minister for not presenting a diplomatic plan.”


Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz said that the attack “undermines the deep interest of both peoples in peace and security, and the need to do everything to renew the diplomatic process.”


Tzipi Livni, the head of the opposition Kadima party, had the good sense to avoid trying to take partisan advantage of the attack. She called for the nation’s sympathy for the Fogel family and supporting army actions against terrorism.




Leah Goldsmith, one of the leaders of Itamar, said that she and her husband, Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith, remain optimistic about the community’s future, despite the killing of the Fogels, and other casualties it has suffered due to terrorist attacks over the years. The Goldsmiths are Americans who first came to Itamar 15 years ago. He is the mayor of the town, and one of the founders of Yeshivat Chitzim.


She recalled that, in 2002, when three boys from her husband’s yeshiva were killed by a terrorist, “we thought that was the end of the school. What parent would want to send their children to study here? But soon after, the school quadrupled its student body.”


She says that Itamar is full of idealistic people like the Fogels. Yitzchak Shadmi, a longtime friend of the Fogel family, described Udi Fogel as a brilliant student who “could have been a scientist, but chose to be a Torah educator instead.”


Mrs. Goldsmith is particularly annoyed by the tendency of the Israeli media to describe Itamar as a “peripheral” community. “We are exactly one hour away from Yerushalayim and the large metropolitan area around Tel Aviv on the coastal plain. On the map we are at the geographical center point of Israel. That is anything but peripheral.”




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