JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the kidnappers of three Israeli teenagers missing since Thursday in the West Bank were members of the extremist Islamist group Hamas.
Netanyahu’s remarks followed an Israeli security sweep overnight Satureday in which about 80 Palestinians were arrested across the West Bank, the army said. Most of those detained were Hamas members, including prominent political figures, legislators and former Cabinet ministers affiliated with the group, Palestinians reported.
“Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday’s kidnapping,” Netanyahu said. “We know that for a fact.”
One of the missing teens, Naftali Frenkel, 16, a yeshiva student at the settlement of Kfar Etzion, holds U.S. citizenship. The others have been identified as Eyal Yifrach, 19, a student at a yeshiva in the Jewish settlement enclave in Hebron, and Gilad Shaer, 16, who attends the same school as Frenkel.
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“We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas’ involvement,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a written statement. “As we gather this information, we reiterate our position that Hamas is a terrorist organization known for its attacks on innocent civilians and which has used kidnapping in the past.”
Under a reconciliation deal reached by Hamas and the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, an interim government backed by both factions was formed earlier this month. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. Israel suspended peace talks with the Palestinians and says it will not negotiate with the Hamas-backed government.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that the kidnappers were members of “an arm of Hamas” in the West Bank. Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip declined to comment on the abduction or take responsibility for it, suggesting that it might have been initiated independently in the West Bank.
A leaflet issued Friday carried a claim of responsibility by a local branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — the radical Islamic group that has made dramatic gains in fighting in Iraq in recent days. The group is not known to be active in the West Bank, however, and the statement has not been authenticated.
Beefed-up Israeli troops continued house-to-house searches for the teenagers, who attend a religious school and were hitchhiking home at a road junction near a cluster of Jewish settlements north of the city of Hebron.
Although police received an emergency call from one of the teenagers at the time of the incident, in which he whispered that he had been kidnapped, it was deemed a false alarm, Israel Radio reported. Only after the father of one of the teens filed a police report hours later that his son was missing was the information passed to the army and security services, the radio report said.
Despite the risks and warnings by security officials of planned kidnappings, hitchhiking is a common mode of getting around among young Jewish settlers and religious-studies students in the West Bank.
Israeli officials believe the kidnappers, who have given no public indication yet that they are holding the teenagers, may try to trade them for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Palestinian officials, who have noted that the youths disappeared in a West Bank area under Israeli control, dismissed Netanyahu’s remarks.
“Now he wants to make us responsible for something for which we bear absolutely no responsibility,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Abbas, said in a radio interview. “The occupation has to bear responsibility for everything that happens on our land, be it actions, violations or crimes.”
A “Bring Back Our Boys” Facebook campaign — inspired by a similar effort last month organized for the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by extremists — included thousands of photographs of people with the slogan printed on signs, or skin.
In an emotional statement broadcast on the radio Sunday afternoon, Rachel Frankel, Naftali Frankel’s mother, spoke as if to her son, saying, “You should know that the people of Israel are turning worlds to bring you home.”
Israel also carried out six airstrikes in the Gaza Strip overnight in response to rocket fire, wounding a 15-year-old girl and a 27-year-old woman. It closed commercial and pedestrian crossings into Gaza with exceptions only for fuel deliveries and humanitarian emergencies, and canceled family visits to Palestinians in Israeli jails this week. On Sunday night, four rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel.
Includes material from The New York Times