A Military Raid to Save Sifrei Torah // Rabbi Yitzchak Bleichbard, a rabbi with the border police, explains how an investigation led to a dramatic rescue of stolen sifrei Torah

by Chananya Bleich

It was a horrific sight, even for the most jaded of mispallelim.
Early risers arriving at the Tiferes Shimon shul on Rechov Rabbi Akiva in Bnei Brak last Tuesday morning were speechless from shock. The building’s lights were on, the door was open, and the shul had been ransacked. Some time during the night, the aron kodesh had been emptied of its precious sifrei Torah. Several scrolls were missing, and one sefer Torah was lying on the ground, along with numerous Chumashim and Tanachs.

As Rabbi Moshe Cohen, the gabbai of the shul, told Ami, “We realized that the thieves had stolen four sifrei Torah, two of which were new. Another older scroll had been thrown on the floor.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Bleichbard, a rabbi with the border police, shared how the investigation led to the rescue of the sifrei Torah.

“When police were called to the scene, along with detectives and forensic experts, they tried to search for footage on a security laptop usually hidden in the shul, but the perpetrators had taken that, too. After an intense investigation, it was learned that a passerby had seen a car parked near the shul at 4:30 a.m. with two men getting out. When he asked what they were looking for, they replied that they were contractors. The person didn’t question them further. The police began a manhunt.

“As the police continued to investigate, they also learned that several bachurim had noticed a group of Arabs walking around the shul the day before the theft.

“The night after the Bnei Brak theft, another one took place in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, and the burglars were caught. Intensive interrogation revealed that they were part of the same gang that had broken into the shul in Bnei Brak the night before.

“As they were being questioned, the prisoners began to reveal information, leading the investigators to the stolen computer, which unbeknownst to the perpetrators contained the security footage that had captured the theft. They had the criminals. It was now time to find the stolen sifrei Torah. Eventually one of the prisoners confessed that the stolen sifrei Torah were in the Arab village of Aqraba, southwest of Nablus (Shechem), a hostile and dangerous Palestinian area. The border police then enlisted the help of the elite counterterrorism unit Yamas to learn more about the village and how best to recover the stolen goods. The recovery operation took place in broad daylight on Sunday, utilizing the element of surprise.

“Before noon, a convoy of about 15 armored vehicles of the security forces (the IDF, the Border Police and the police), with their passengers wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests, entered Palestinian territory, advancing towards Aqraba.

“In a previous case in which five sifrei Torah were stolen in Tel Aviv and smuggled to Chevron, the sifrei Torah were returned by the Palestinian Authority, not by Israeli forces. This time, the entire operation was conducted by Israeli forces, including the commander of the Bnei Brak station Chief Superintendent Yair Witzenberg, Chief Superintendent Ronen Shamri of the Investigations and Intelligence Division, Cheif Superintendent Ehud Levi of the Operations Division, and Assaf Zweig, head of the special investigation team. They were guided by one of the Arabs who had been caught in the Jaffa robbery.

“The Palestinian thief led the entourage to a sheep pen in the heart of Aqraba, where the sifrei Torah were lying, well wrapped in nylon, carefully hidden in a haystack. Since the thieves hoped to resell the sifrei Torah, they tried to protect them from the moisture inside the shed.

“During the stealthy operation, the police also arrested five Arabs in their 20s, residents of Aqraba, Shechem and Yerushalayim, who orchestrated the theft. They also uncovered a hunting rifle, ammunition, and fireworks in the area.”

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