The fate of three Israeli teens missing in the West Bank since Thursday remained unknown as Israeli forces Saturday expanded a massive manhunt to locate the youths who authorities assume were abducted by Palestinian militants.
Contact was lost with Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, on Thursday evening as they were hitchhiking through the West Bank from a yeshiva to their homes. Frenkel, of the community of Nof Ayalon, holds dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship.
Soldiers continued to comb Palestinian villages in the Hebron area Saturday as intelligence agencies tried to piece together information that could shed light on the disappearance.
“As long as we don’t know otherwise, our working assumption is that they are alive,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters Saturday, vowing Israel would “not rest until we free the youths and put our hands on the terrorists responsible for this operation.”
Abduction of Israeli civilians and soldiers is a standing threat and 14 such attempts have been foiled by Israeli security this year, Yaalon said. “It appears that this event slipped under our radar,” he conceded.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a news conference at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, following consultation throughout the day with the ministers of defense and public security, the army chief of staff and Shin Bet director.
Netanyahu did not divulge the information authorities have at this moment. “But I can say the following: Our boys were kidnapped by a terror organization, clear and cut, there is no doubt,” he said.
The prime minister instructed security forces to use all means at their disposal to locate the teens, including actions to “prevent their transfer to the Gaza Strip or any other location.”
Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas do everything needed for the youths’ safe return.
“The Palestinian Authority and Abbas are responsible for any and all attacks originating from their territory,” Netanyahu said.
Local media reported that Israel was taking action to prevent Palestinians from the Hebron from traveling to Jordan in the immediate future, as well as canceling visitation rights for all Palestinian prisoners from the same region.
The incident proves Israel’s position on Abbas’ recent reconciliation with Hamas was correct, Netanyahu said. Those among the international community who welcomed the move as a possible advance toward peace “now see the real results of this union,” said the prime minister.
In a further attempt to clamp down on the Hebron area where the three were believed to have been taken, Israel’s military deployed 2,000 troops. A senior military official requesting anonymity said Saturday that the army was following a few preliminary leads at this point.
A few dozen Palestinians were detained for questioning. Palestinian sources said the targets were mostly members of one extended clan known as car thieves.
On Saturday, Israeli forensic experts continued processing the charred remains of a car reportedly stolen from Israel and found near the site where the teens were believed to have gone missing.
Throughout Saturday, military officials and municipal social workers accompanied the families, and friends and well-wishers gathered in synagogues to pray for the teens’ safety during the Jewish Sabbath.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.