Israeli authorities on Thursday named two West Bank Palestinians as prime suspects in the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank two weeks ago.
The two alleged abductors, Amer Abu Aysha and Marwan Kawasme, are both known Hamas members. They have been missing from their homes in Hebron’s Hares neighborhood ever since the kidnapping took place on the night of June 12 and are still at large. Israeli security forces have been engaged in a massive operation to find the abducted youths.
The identities of the suspected kidnappers, who attended prayer services regularly at the same mosque, have been known to Israel since soon after the kidnapping, but were kept secret as the search operation continued over the past two weeks. They are alleged to have been in the car in which Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel were abducted from a hitchhiking post near the settlement of Alon Shvut in the Eztion Bloc south of Jerusalem, Israeli officials said. Other members of their Hamas group have been arrested, the officials added.
Abu Aysha, a 32-year-old locksmith, was last seen at a family gathering only hours before the kidnapping, according to his father Omar, who spoke to The Times of Israel in Hebron several days ago. Abu Aysha’s father, Omar, who has spent time in an Israeli prisons for ties with Hamas, said that his son left the family gathering abruptly without offering any details as to his destination.
Abu Aysha’s brother Zayd, also a member of Hamas, was killed in November 2005 during a clash with IDF soldiers in Hebron. Abu Aysha’s mother told The Times of Israel that unlike Zayd, Abu Aysha was a family man who was deeply involved in the lives of his wife and three children. She said he had worked in Jerusalem as well as in al-Azariya, east of the city. She added that she too last saw Abu Aysha on Thursday, June 12, before the abduction, and said she did not notice anything unusual in his behavior.
However, Abu Aysha’s mother added, if her son did take part in the kidnapping, she was proud of him and hoped he would continue to evade capture, both by Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces.
The second suspect, Kawasme, a 29-year-old barber who used to cut Abu Aysha’s kids’ hair, was detained by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel in the past. His family is known to be affiliated with Hamas. His uncle Abdullah Kawasme was the commander of the organization’s military wing in Hebron and was killed in a battle with SWAT officers in November 2003.
Hamas officials in Hebron confirmed the two suspects were members, and said Israeli troops have targeted the men’s homes since the beginning of the operation. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears for their safety, said troops had entered the homes several times, conducting intense searches and confiscating items as evidence.
A senior Palestinian intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the two suspects are believed to be hiding and that Palestinian security forces were also searching for them.
He said the fact that the two men have been missing since the kidnapping is “clear evidence they have links with the abduction.”
Israel has blamed Hamas for the kidnapping of Fraenkel, Yifrach and Shaar, though the Islamist group has denied involvement. Thousands of Israeli troops have searched hundreds of locations in the West Bank and arrested some 400 Palestinians, many from Hamas, including some who were freed in a 2011 prisoner exchange for Hamas-kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In recent days, search efforts have focused on an area north of Hebron, where some 1,500 soldiers have been deployed. Some areas are now being searched for the third and fourth time.
The IDF’s Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz said Tuesday that “as time passes, the fear grows,” but stressed that Israel’s working assumption is that the three Israeli teenagers are alive.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.