A “terror group” has abducted three Israeli teenagers missing from the West Bank since Thursday, Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu says.
He said an “intensive operation” is under way to find the two 16-year-olds and one 19-year-old. The three seminary students went missing near an Israeli settlement north of Hebron as they were returning from evening lessons.
Palestinian officials say they are co-operating with the search.
The teenagers have been identified as Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar – both 16 – and Eyal Yifrach, 19. They were last seen in the area of Gush Etzion, a bloc of Jewish settlements located between Jerusalem and the predominantly Palestinian city of Hebron.
Frenkel’s mother broke her silence on Sunday, saying her family is in close contact with the security forces and getting briefings on any new information.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the Palestinian Authority responsible for their well-being, but Palestinians baulked at the idea they were to blame for the disappearance inside an Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank.
The suspected abductions come as Israel piles pressure on a new Palestinian government, formed early last week under a reconciliation deal between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel’s foe, the Islamist movement Hamas.
The search is being carried out in coordination with security forces from the Palestinian Authority, and “tens of Palestinians” have been arrested in the process.
Substantial reinforcements had been brought in to participate in the search around Hebron, in the southern West Bank.
“Because we have no information to the contrary, we are assuming that they are still alive,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters.
Troops closed the main crossings into the Gaza Strip to prevent the teenagers from being smuggled into the territory, where the Islamist Hamas movement remains dominant despite the formation of the Palestinian unity government.
A crisis amid increasing tension: political repercussions
In response, Israel launched air strikes on southern Gaza.
Hamas said Apache gunships had fired on a training camp of its armed wing in Khan Yunis and empty ground in Rafah, on the Egyptian border, without causing casualties.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Cabinet meeting on Sunday that Hamas was behind the boys’ disappearance.
“This morning I can say what I was unable to say yesterday before the extensive wave of arrests of Hamas members,” he said. “Those who perpetrated the abduction of our youths were members of Hamas”. “This has severe repercussions,” he added.
Later Sunday, Netanyahu said the “attack should surprise no one” in light of a new Palestinian unity government sworn in by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas which is backed by Hamas.
“Instead of abiding by his international obligation to disarm Hamas, President Abbas has chosen to make Hamas his partner,” Netanyahu said later on Sunday. “Israel holds the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas responsible for any attacks against Israel that emanate from Palestinian-controlled territory.”
Israel suspended crisis-hit peace talks with the Palestinians when a Hamas-backed Palestinian unity government was announced. Israel insists it will not deal with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas.