The Israeli army moved additional forces to the West Bank Saturday as it intensified a search for three missing Jewish teenagers believed to have been seized by Palestinian militants.
“Our boys were kidnapped by a terrorist organization, plain and simple,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a nationally televised statement. “There is no doubt about that.”
Netanyahu accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of responsibility for the apparent abduction, asserting that the perpetrators came from a West Bank area under control of the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian officials had noted earlier that the Israeli teenagers, religious seminary students who had been hitchhiking near a cluster of Jewish settlements, went missing in an area under full Israeli control.
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The mutual recriminations reflected the deepening rift between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since the breakdown of American-brokered peace talks in April and the formation of a Palestinian unity government backed by the militant Islamist group Hamas.
More than 48 hours after the Jewish youths were last seen in the southern West Bank on Thursday night, there were no indications that Israeli security forces were any closer to finding them or identifying the group behind the presumed abduction.
“As long as we don’t know otherwise, our working assumption is that that they are alive,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said after a briefing with senior army officers. “We are in the midst of an intelligence and operational effort . . . and I hope that this effort will bring us to the missing people in order to rescue them alive.”
Although there has been no credible claim of responsibility for the disappearance of the teenagers, Israeli officials said they believed that they were being held by militants hoping to exchange them for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel holds some 5,000 Palestinians in its prisons.
A leaflet issued Friday and signed “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Palestine-West Bank” carried a claim of responsibility for what it called the abduction of the teenagers, but there was no confirmation of the statement’s authenticity.
ISIS, a radical Islamist insurgent group, is not known to operate in the West Bank, but the name spoke to ISIS's new stature after its march through northern Iraq after the capture of that country’s second largest city last week.
The leaflet said that ISIS operatives had carried out the kidnapping in response to the killing of three of the group’s members by Israeli forces near the West Bank city of Hebron last November, and as part of efforts to free the Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli military identified the slain militants at the time as members of a “Salafist-Jihadi” group, a term for Islamic extremists.
The missing Israelis were identified as Eyal Yifrach, 19, a student at a yeshiva in the Jewish settlement enclave in Hebron, Naftali Frenkel, 16, a yeshiva student at the settlement of Kfar Etzion and a U.S. citizen, and Gilad Shaer, 16, a fellow student in the same institution.
An investigation found that the three were hitchhiking home at a highway junction in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc north of Hebron late Thursday night when they went missing, apparently after they got into a passing car. Israeli settlers routinely hitch rides on West Bank roads used by both Israeli and Palestinian motorists.
An Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said that police were alerted by an emergency call from the cellphone of one of the teenagers at about 10 p.m., and though he did not speak, noises in the background indicated that he was in trouble.
Palestinians reported Saturday that Israeli forces were searching homes in Hebron and surrounding villages and that at least a dozen people had been arrested. Travelers from Hebron were barred from leaving the West Bank to Jordan.
Palestinian security officials in the West Bank were said to be working with the Israelis in an effort to locate the missing teenagers.
The security cooperation has heightened tensions between Abbas’s Fatah faction, which is dominant in the West Bank, and Hamas after their recent formation of a unity government as part of a reconciliation accord meant to end a seven-year rift. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, called the cooperation by the Palestinian Authority a “mark of shame.”
Netanyahu said that the seizure of the three Israelis proved that Abbas’s “pact with Hamas leads to very serious results, results that are the complete opposite of advancing peace between us and the Palestinians.”
The Palestinian unity deal “opens the door to a possible takeover by Hamas of the areas of the Palestinian Authority” in the West Bank, Netanyahu added. “You can’t talk about peace with Israel and at the same time form a unity government with Hamas.”