Israeli security forces were conducting a large-scale search Friday for three teenagers who disapeared in the West Bank and were feared to have been abducted by Palestinian militants.
Families of the Israeli teenagers – one of whom is believed to hold American citizenship – lost contact with them Thursday evening in the southern West Bank area that Israel calls Gush Etzyon, officials and news reports said.
Two of them are students at a high school yeshiva in the area, and the third is a graduate of the same school, the media reports said. They were believed to have been hitch-hiking to their homes — a common practice among the area’s Israeli settlers, despite repeated warnings — but never arrived.
Israeli security forces deployed in large numbers, setting up roadblocks and carrying out door-to-door searches through Palestinian villages and towns in an attempt to find them.
The search was assisted by a major intelligence effort, including tracking signals from cellular phones that could indicate the route taken by the missing boys — who are between 17 and 19 years old — and any communication among militant circles.
As the Jewish Sabbath drew near, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an urgent meeting at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv with the ministers of defense and public security, as well as the army chief of staff and representatives of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency.
“Israel holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for the well-being of those missing,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the situation, according to the prime minister’s office and news reports. The U.S. ambassador to Israeli was also briefed, reports said.
Jewish religious circles asked Israelis to pray for the youths’ safe return. Welfare authorities were dispatched to support their families.
Speaking at a rally Friday in the Gaza Strip, an official of the militant group Islamic Jihad said that the only way to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners was to kidnap Israelis. However, there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the teenagers’ apparent abduction.
Security forces were investigating whether a burnt vehicle found in the Hebron area may have been connected to their disappearance. The police planned to take the charred remains to Jerusalem for forensic testing in an attempt to determine if any of the youths had been in it, according to news reports.
Despite a court issued gag-order and military censorship, rumors about the search raged throughout the day among tight-knit Israelis and misinformation circulated quickly.
Administrators of social media forums scrambled to remove posts revealing details that were banned for publication.
In what may be a first, Several administrators of Israeli Whatsapp groups reported that the military had reached out to them, asking for compliance with the information blackout on the mobile application, which has become a major channel of communication for many Israelis.
The censorship was partially lifted in the late afternoon, but only basic information was provided about the operation.
“Our main priority is finding the youths,” said Israeli army spokesman Motti Almoz, who asked for responsible media coverage and promised to disclose full details when possible.