Israeli troops tightened their clampdown on the West Bank city of Hebron and its environs Sunday, hoping to find three Jewish teens missing and presumed abducted by Palestinian militants.
About 80 Palestinians were arrested overnight, mostly from the Hebron area, including politicians, academics, militants and supporters affiliated with Hamas. Palestinian media kept a running list of those detained.
Three days after the youths disappeared while hitchhiking through the West Bank on their way home, Israeli military and intelligence raced against the clock to track down them down and keep them from being whisked from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip or a neighboring country.
So far, there has been no credible claim of responsibility, and the fate of the three remains unknown.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday morning that members of Hamas were behind the kidnapping.
Hamas officials in Gaza denied this but Netanyahu was adamant. “Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday’s kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers; we know that for a fact… Hamas denials do not change this fact,” the prime minister said in a statement in Tel-Aviv.
In a statement issued in Washington on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry also said Hamas was a likely culprit.
“We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas’ involvement,” Kerry said. “As we gather this information, we reiterate our position that Hamas is a terrorist organization known for its attacks on innocent civilians and which has used kidnapping in the past.”
On Saturday, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon had said that until proven otherwise, Israel was working on the assumption that the three teens — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16 — were alive.
The Israeli military operation is focusing on the area of Hebron, where thousands of troops have been deployed in recent days to scour villages and rural areas for hiding places. At the same time, Israeli intelligence was mounting a parallel effort.
Forces were bolstered Sunday with several hundred regular Army soldiers and a smaller number of reservists deployed in the search. Large concrete blocks were placed around Hebron to seal it off and its residents were barred from traveling to Israel and Jordan.
The Israeli forces are reported to be hunting for two Hamas militants formerly imprisoned in Israel.
Tensions have been mounting along Israel’s southern borders in recent days, with Israeli air strikes following rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, and Israel has deployed extra batteries of the Iron Dome air-defense system around its southern cities.
Reportedly, security has been tightened along Egypt’s border with Gaza as well.
The incident is a test for all parties after the collapse of peace talks and the nascent reconciliation between the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah.
Netanyahu continues to hold the Palestinian Authority ultimately responsible. Security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian forces has continued, drawing criticism from some Hamas circles.
Since news of the abduction was cleared for publication Friday, Israelis have been following media broadcasts around the clock.
Some attended mass prayers held at the Western Wall and other locations, as others mobilized on social media platforms.
A social media campaign titled #BringBackOurBoys has a Facebook following of 55,000 (although a hashtag with a similar slogan was adopted by Palestinian sympathizers protesting arrests of minors by Israeli security forces).
A more radical Facebook initiative calling for Israel to “execute a terrorist every hour” until the youths are returned gained more than 10,000 supporters within a few hours.
One of the missing teens, Frenkel, holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. Outside the family home in the community of Nof Ayalon, his mother Rachel thanked everyone engaged in efforts to return her son and his friends.
Frenkel said she was optimistic that “God will see the combined effort of solidarity and prayer and embrace the boys.”
Sobelman is a special correspondent.