An Israeli man feared kidnapped in the West Bank Thursday afternoon was found safe and sound later at night and the IDF said the incident was a fabricated report of a potential terror attack.
Niv Asraf, 22, from the southern city of Beersheba was reported missing by a friend near Hebron, prompting Israeli security forces to launch a widespread search for him that lasted several hours.
A police statement said Asraf was found near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, outside Hebron, with a sleeping bag and some canned food. Police said the event was being considered as a “prank” and a massive “waste of resources.”
“This deceptive incident is very grave, especially in light of the sensitive security situation at the moment,” the police said.
The IDF said that security forces were now returning to their normal routine.
“The incident in Hebron is criminal in nature. It will soon come to an end. It is likely a false, fabricated report. Our forces are returning to their normal routine and the investigation is being handed over to police,” said IDF spokesman Moti Almoz.
Israeli security forces had launched a major manhunt for Asraf near Hebron shortly after his friend called police just after 4 p.m. and reported that he had entered the Palestinian village of Beit Anun and hadn’t returned.
The Palestinian Authority assisted with the search, Channel 1 reported.
The army set up roadblocks on Route 60, the main north-south artery connecting Jerusalem and Hebron, and Route 35.
According to the account given by the friend, the two men got a flat tire while driving on the road between Kiryat Arba and Beit Anun.
Asraf went to get tools to fix the flat from the nearby Arab village and disappeared, said the friend.
Suspicions were raised after the car was found to have no flat tire and police questioned why the two had stopped where they did.
The car was stopped precisely at the bottom of a path leading into the village.
The TV report said that the friend, a former Border Policeman who had served in the area, had given “at least three versions” of what had happened, and was not considered credible.
It made no sense for the missing man to have chosen to enter a potentially hostile Palestinian village when the entrance to the settlement of Kiryat Arba was only 300 meters away from the spot where their car was stopped, the report added.
Asraf was said to be an employee of the Jewish National Fund, who had started a new job on Wednesday morning.
His cousin, named only as “Meir,” had said earlier Thursday night that Asraf had gone to work and then phoned his mother to say he was going to pray at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. “This has hit us like thunder on a clear day… I ask all of Israel to pray for him,” Meir said, “that he should return home safe and well.”
Last June, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by a Hamas cell at a junction in the Etzion Bloc, north of Wednesday’s incident, and subsequently found murdered. The incident led to a drastic upsurge in tension between Israel and Hamas, ultimately leading to the 50-day Operation Protective Edge conflict last summer.