Israel on Thursday named two Palestinians it said had kidnapped three Jewish teenagers who’ve been missing for two weeks since they disappeared while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in the West Bank.
The Shin Bet security agency identified the Palestinians as Marwan Kawasmeh and Amer Abu Eisha, saying they were operatives of the militant Islamist group Hamas in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Both have been missing since the night the teenagers vanished, and information on their disappearance was reportedly relayed to the Israelis by the Palestinian security services.
The Israeli announcement, which could not be independently confirmed, was the first disclosure of intelligence information in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that Hamas members had seized the missing teens.
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Despite widespread searches in the Hebron area by Israeli army forces, there has been no evident progress in finding the teenagers and those believed to have seized them. Neither has there been a credible claim of responsibility by any Palestinian group. While Hamas leaders have welcomed the apparent kidnapping as a means to free Palestinian prisoners in an exchange, they have avoided any declaration of involvement.
Along with the searches for the teenagers _ Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16 _ Israeli forces have carried out a sweeping crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting nearly 400 Palestinians, about 300 of them with suspected links to the militant group.
Four Palestinians have been shot and killed by Israeli forces in several days of street clashes triggered by raids that targeted charities, welfare organizations, media offices and student groups suspected of links to Hamas.
The Shin Bet, which released pictures of the alleged kidnappers, said that Kawasmeh had been arrested previously and jailed five times. The agency said he’d confessed during interrogation in 2010 that he had been recruited to the armed wing of Hamas in the Hebron area.
Since 2009, Kawasmeh had been involved in military training in caves in the Hebron area, had worked to obtain raw materials for explosives and helped recruit others to Hamas, the security agency said. He was last released from jail in 2012.
Abu Eisha, who had been arrested and detained twice in recent years, was active with Kawasmeh in a Hamas group in the Hebron area, according to the Shin Bet.
The agency said that one of Abu Eisha’s brothers was killed in November 2005 when he tried to hurl an explosive device at Israeli troops, and that his father had been detained in Israel several times for unspecified “terror activities.”
Members of Abu Eisha’s family told Israeli television stations that he had left home the evening on June 12, the same night the three Jewish teenagers vanished, and had not returned. But Abu Eisha’s father denied that his son was involved in any kidnapping, calling the Israeli charges a “charade” and asserting that his son was being held in Israeli custody.
The Shin Bet said that several Palestinians suspected of involvement in the alleged kidnapping have been arrested and were under interrogation.
They included four of Kawasmeh’s brothers, one of whom has since been freed while another remains under questioning and two more are detained without trial, their lawyer told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Accusing Hamas of kidnapping the Israeli teens, Netanyahu has seized on the episode to condemn a reconciliation agreement between the militant group and the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The two factions have backed a recently formed unity government that has won broad international acceptance despite strong Israeli protests.
Referring to Abbas’ strong denunciation of the suspected kidnapping in a speech last week, Netanyahu said Thursday: “I now expect President Abbas . . . to stand by those words and break his pact with the Hamas terrorist organization that kidnaps youngsters and calls for the destruction of Israel.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of Palestinians killed in recent Israeli arrest sweeps in the West Bank.