Best of Slow Journalism: The Lives and Deaths of Naftali and Mohammed

AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Six months after the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, BBC World Service journalist Mike Thomson made a documentary about the lives and legacies of two murdered boys. He first travelled to a West Bank settlement to speak to the family of Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old who was brutally murdered along with two of his friends while hitchhiking home from school. And then he travelled to East Jerusalem to meet the Palestinian family of another 16-year-old boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli extremists seeking revenge.

The boys’ deaths ultimately led to many more deaths as the situation escalated and the Gaza conflict began. Yet the most powerful thing about Thomson’s documentary is neither the appalling murders nor their disastrous consequences. Thanks to the journalist’s sensitive questioning, we hear friends and family bring the teenagers to life – and discover they had much in common. Fraenkel was a musician; Abu Khdeir was a folk dancer. They both had a mischievous sense of fun and were kind, generous and sensitive. In a better world, they could have been friends.

The families have experienced a similar pain. Both saw their son’s murder used as an excuse to inflict more violence upon the enemy. Neither of these thoughtful, conscientious boys would have wanted this as their legacy. These are almost parallel lives, on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide.

Half a year down the line, the pain is still raw. The Abu Khdeir family keeps building memorials for their son at the spot on the side of the road where he was killed, but every time they are torn down by extremist Israelis. There’s a poignant moment when Thomson returns to a memorial he’d seen the family build two weeks earlier – and it’s been destroyed. When Thomson asks the Fraenkels how they felt when hearing about the revenge attacks, they say they were horrified:  “No parent should go through what we’ve been through,” they told him.  “Especially not an innocent boy just walking through the street in Jerusalem. It is simply horrible.”

You can listen to the excellent documentary here.

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