A senior Hamas official denied on Saturday that the terror group had any involvement or knowledge about the three yeshiva students who were kidnapped on Thursday night.
Osama Hamdan said during a TV interview that Hamas had no knowledge of what happened Thursday when Gil-ad Shaar (16) from the settlement of Talmon, Naftali Frenkel (16) a dual Israeli-American citizen from Nof Ayalon near Modi’in, and Eyal Yifrach (19) from Elad near Petah Tikva, went missing near the West Bank city of Hebron.
The official added that should it indeed become clear that a Palestinian group was behind the abduction operation, he hoped that negotiations with Israel to free Palestinian prisoners in return for the three yeshiva students would be conducted in the name of all Palestinian groups.
Channel 2’s Middle East commentator Ehud Yaari said this statement from Hamas was unusual and could indicate that the higher-ups in the terror group were kept in the dark.
Earlier Saturday, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza hailed the “success” of the kidnapping without taking responsibility. Fauzi Barhum lambasted the PA over its coordination with Israel in the search for the missing boys, saying the security cooperation between the two sides to locate the “heroic kidnappers” was a “mark of disgrace.”
Hamas said 16 of its members had been arrested, including several former prisoners. It was unclear what connection, if any, these men had to the youths’ disappearance
Also on Saturday, a second group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students, following a first claim by a Salafi jihadist organization on Friday, but it was unclear whether either claim had any credibility.
An organization calling itself the “Liberators’ Battalion of Hebron” sent out a message to the press Saturday claiming it carried out the abduction Thursday night.
The group said it abducted the boys “out of a sense of responsibility for the [Palestinian] prisoners sitting in the jails of the occupying entity.”
The West Bank yeshiva students were reportedly last spotted at a hitchhiking post in the vicinity of Hebron on Thursday night. No one has seen or heard from them since.
Israeli security forces conducted a massive manhunt overnight Friday and into Saturday as part of an ongoing investigation into the disappearances.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to convene a security meeting Saturday evening at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss the ongoing search for the three.
Defense Minister Moshe (Bougie) Ya’alon said Saturday afternoon that Israel’s working assumption is that the three are still alive. He admitted that their apparent abduction had gone “under the radar” of intelligence gatherers who therefore failed to thwart the attack.
“We are in the midst of an intelligence (gathering) and operational effort,” Ya’alon told reporters early Saturday afternoon after holding a situation report with military leaders. “I hope this effort leads us as soon as possible to the missing (teens) and to rescuing them alive.”