Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) on Friday outlined Israel’s large-scale operation in the West Bank to locate the three kidnapped teenagers as threefold: to reach the kidnappers and free the youths, damage Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank, and bring about an end to the reconciliation agreement between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
“It’s clear where this operation is headed: to find the boys, to bring them back. We want them back by next Friday [for the Sabbath],” Lapid said during an interview with Channel 2, adding that Israel must also “break Hamas.”
Urging patience, the Yesh Atid leader said Operation Brother’s Keeper to locate Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, who were abducted June 12 in Gush Etzion, was “a complicated mission, involving many IDF troops.”
Lapid was echoing a statement made earlier Friday by Science Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), a former head of the Shin Bet security service, who said that the West Bank operation may continue for a long time.
Lapid also commended Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his statements this week condemning the kidnappings.
“If Abbas sits at the Arab League and says that the kidnapping is a bad thing, that’s courageous,” he said.
“They [the Palestinian Authority] are starting to understand that unity [with Hamas] was a mistake. This mistake can be rectified,” said the finance minister.
Lapid also praised the cooperation between the IDF and the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank in the effort to locate the teenagers, calling it “significant.”
Asked if this cooperation could lead to renewed peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinians, Lapid said the question was “too hypothetical” for the moment.
The three teenagers were last seen at a hitchhiking post last Thursday night in the Gush Etzion area.
Israeli forces have embarked on a massive campaign to locate the three kidnapped youths while simultaneously destroying parts of the Hamas terror infrastructure in the West Bank.
Over the past week, thousands of Israeli troops have searched hundreds of locations in the West Bank and arrested more than 300 Palestinians, many of them from Hamas, including some who were freed in a 2011 prisoner exchange for Hamas-kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
On Wednesday, Abbas spoke out against the kidnapping of three Israeli teens and demanded their immediate release.
The Palestinian foreign minister, Riad al-Maliki, on Friday said that Abbas remained committed to preventing a popular uprising against Israel at all costs and that the security cooperation with Israel to locate the youths would continue.
“We will do our utmost to help because if the situation continues as it is, this will end up [with] the destruction of what we have built in Palestine,” Malki told Reuters.
The Palestinian FM added that if Hamas was indeed found to be behind the kidnappings, the Palestinian Authority would take steps to amend the Fatah-Hamas agreement, which resulted in the establishment of a unity government sworn in earlier this month.
“If Hamas is behind it, and nobody knows up until now, then it will be a blow to the reconciliation process,” Malki said.
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the families of the kidnapped Israeli teens.
The two-hour meeting took place at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem Friday afternoon.
Netanyahu told the parents of the missing teens that finding their sons “is the central goal of the operational and intelligence steps that we are currently taking, and all the relevant units have been mobilized for this purpose.”
“We have deployed additional forces to the field, and we are investing a tremendous effort to bring the boys home… The nation lends you its strength, and you return that strength,” the prime minister told the parents.
Iris Yifrach, the mother of Eyal, told reporters after the meeting that she was grateful to the prime minister and his wife for their “warm welcome, their support and encouragement.”
In a later statement to the press, Yifrach pointed out that this was the second Sabbath without her son. “This is the second Sabbath that our boys – Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali –are not with us,” she said, anguished and in tears. “Our hearts break missing them.”
Bat-Galim Shaar, Gil-ad’s mother, said that her family “believes the government has other pressure points it could apply to lead to the safe return of our boys.”
“We ask the prime minister to [make] use [of] them,” she said.
Naftali Fraenkel’s mother, Rachelle, said that the meeting with the Netanyahus “was a good meeting.”
“They listened to our questions and to our suggestions,” she said.
Earlier Friday, in a meeting with soldiers from elite units currently conducting the search in the West Bank, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that “until we know otherwise, our working assumption is that the abductees are alive.”
The teens’ kidnappers, likely including two known Hamas operatives from Hebron who have been missing since the abduction last week, have not gone public or made any demands.
“You have to take this into account,” Ya’alon told the combat troops. “If you come into contact with those responsible for the kidnapping, you have to operate under the assumption that the kidnapped boys are still alive.”
Fraenkel’s uncle, Yishai Fraenkel, told Galey Yisrael Radio (the regional radio station of Judea and Samaria) on Friday that Israel had information that indicated the youths are still alive.
“All the indications we’re receiving, based on information, not our feelings, are that the boys are alive. The defense establishment has a representative in each family’s home, and they’re updating the immediate families, who know much more than what the media is saying,” Fraenkel said.
Israel’s top cop, Commissioner Yohanan Danino, also vowed that the search, which has relied heavily on Border Police and regular police units throughout the West Bank, would continue “with determination and perseverance.”