Military official: Search for teens may take days

Not clear three missing yeshiva students still alive, source says; 16 Hamas members held; IDF deploys elite forces to assist in hunt

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 14, 2014, as they search for three teenagers who went missing near Gush Etzion (Phot credit: Hazem Bader/AFP)
Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 14, 2014, as they search for three teenagers who went missing near Gush Etzion (Phot credit: Hazem Bader/AFP)

The search for three missing Israeli youths who disappeared in the West Bank on Thursday and who are presumed kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists will not be over within a matter of hours, and could last many days, a senior military official told Channel 10 news on Saturday. He added that it was not clear the three were still alive.

The unnamed official said some progress had been made overnight, though he would not give details. “There are a number of lines of inquiry,” he said. “This is not an incident of several hours, we are preparing for days. This isn’t going to be short.”

The official confirmed that security forces had made several arrests in the Hebron region overnight, explaining that they were made in hope of getting closer to “the inner circle” of the kidnappers.

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. Palestinians also said troops confiscated security camera tapes in the area, apparently to scan their footage for clues.

The army official added that the IDF has deployed its elite Paratroopers Brigade and other special units to the Hebron region to aide in the hunt for clues.

He said that it was not clear whether the missing boys were still alive, though he noted that it would be difficult for a terror group to keep live hostages hidden in the West Bank for any extended period of time due to the IDF’s heavy presence there.

Israeli officials have expressed concern that there may be an attempt to smuggle the teens to the Gaza Strip or another location through Jordan. Security forces have set up roadblocks and increased inspection throughout the West Bank to prevent this.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon meet on June 13, 2014, as security forces search for three missing yeshiva students, feared kidnapped in the West Bank.  (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon meet on June 13, 2014, as security forces search for three missing yeshiva students, feared kidnapped in the West Bank. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

“The IDF’s intelligence capabilities in Judea and Samaria are very good,” veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai told Ynet, using the Biblical name for the West Bank. “There are many sensors deployed in the field, in addition to the human intelligence and agents Shin Bet uses. We’ve seen that they’re using drones and (observation) balloons from the air to prevent any movement with the abducted (youths).”

The military official said there was good coordination with the Palestinian Authority over the search efforts on all levels. He added that the PA understood very well that this was not “just another terror attack” and recognized its possible impact and repercussions.

Hamas, which has hailed the “success” of the kidnapping without taking responsibility, lambasted the PA over its coordination with Israel. The Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Fauzi Barhum, said on Saturday that the security cooperation between the two sides to locate the “heroic kidnappers” was a “mark of disgrace.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon Saturday morning to assess the situation.

The West Bank yeshiva students were reportedly last spotted at a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion, north of Hebron, on Thursday night. No one has seen or heard from them since.

Israeli security forces have been conducting a massive manhunt since early Friday to find them.

Various local reports indicated overnight that Israeli military officials increasingly believe that a torched car, a Hyundai i35, found by Palestinian police near Hebron early Friday was used in the presumed kidnapping.

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The Shin Bet security agency is also investigating the possible use of a tunnel by the alleged perpetrators to hide the missing boys, reported Ynet News.

At around midnight on Friday, hundreds of people gathered at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to pray for the well-being of the three Israeli teens, one of whom also holds US citizenship.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made no comment about the yeshiva students while speaking at a meeting of his Fatah party Friday. But Hamas officials, in several messages, rejoiced over the kidnappings while not taking responsibility. Badran said “the Hebron operation is a great success for the [Palestinian] resistance in the West Bank.”

On Friday, Netanyahu told US Secretary of State John Kerry over the phone that since the announcement of a unity government between the Fatah-led PLO and Hamas in April, “the situation on the ground has been destructive.”

“This is the result of letting a murderous terrorist organization enter the Palestinian government,” the PM said. Netanyahu said he holds Abbas responsible for their well-being.

A Palestinian official cited by AFP said that Netanyahu had telephoned Abbas, but the Prime Minister’s Office denied this on Saturday.

A senior Islamic Jihad official on Friday called on Palestinians to kidnap Israeli citizens, arguing that Israel had proven in the past that it was willing to negotiate the release of Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for the lives of its civilians.

Palestinian Islamists have repeatedly called to kidnap Israelis, including to use them as bargaining chips to extract the release of Palestinian security prisoners.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Friday that, since the beginning of the year, the Shin Bet has foiled 14 attempts to kidnap Israelis.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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