As security forces continue searching for the three yeshiva teens who went missing in the Hebron area, the IDF arrested several Palestinians in an overnight West Bank raid, Palestinian media reported on Saturday morning.
Palestinian sources told official PA news agency WAFA that the IDF arrested two Palestinians who were previously released from Israeli prison, while Hamas sources told Turkish news agency Anatolia that Israel arrested 16 of its members, among them two women. A Palestinian official said most of those arrested are known to be involved in buying and selling stolen cars.
Palestinians reported that the IDF confiscated security tapes from residents and shopkeepers, and set up roadblocks across the Hebron area.
A senior army official said the Paratroopers Brigade and special forces were deployed to the area to aid the search for the teens, and that progress was made in the investigation. Despite that, he noted that "it is possible we're facing a long and complicated affair that won't end within a few hours, despite all of the efforts."
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IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz met on Saturday morning with Army Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi, the head of the IDF Operations Directorate Yoav Har-Even, GOC Central Command Nitzan Alon, and the commander of the Judea and Samaria division Tamir Yаday for a situation assessment.
Gantz, along with Shin Bet head Yoran Cohen, will later hold a consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. The prime minister was also expected to arrive at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv for another briefing.
While Israeli security officials were in touch with their Palestinian Authority counterparts as part of the search for the three teens, sources at the Prime Minister's Office denied claims from a Palestinian official to AFP that Netanyahu has spoken to PA President Abbas on the phone about the missing yeshiva students.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in London for an international conference on war crimes, held talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry about the disappearance of the teens, one of whom holds American citizenship, and asked him to push the PA to work for the release of the three.
A senior official at the State Department said Friday that Kerry had discussed the issue with Abbas, and had afterwards spoken to Netanyahu. The prime minister said earlier Friday that Abbas was responsible for the safe return of the three, and blamed the formation of the new Palestinian unity government for the situation.
Searching for leads
Over 24 hours after the three yeshiva students went missing in Gush Etzion, the Shin Bet continues gathering evidence to complete a complex intelligence puzzle.
Security sources warned early Saturday that as time goes by, it would be harder to solve this puzzle. The first 24 hours, which have already passed without a breakthrough, are usually the "key 24 hours" for intelligence gathering. While there are leads, they are not ones that would immediately bring to finding the missing teens.
At the moment, investigators believe the burnt Hyundai vehicle found by the Palestinian police near Hebron was used by the terror cell to kidnap the teens. The working assumption is that the terrorists deliberately chose a relatively new car, Hyundai i35, to give their victims a false sense of security, and to avoid raising suspicion with soldiers of the Kfir Brigade's Lavi Battalion that were securing the area at the time of the disappearance.
In addition, the possible kidnappers chose a relatively remote area to snatch their victims – the Kfar Etzion junction, where the teens were last seen, is fairly dark, and the fields around it lead straight to nearby Palestinian villages. The village of Halhul and the city of Hebron are south of the junction, while on the southwest is the village of Dura – where according to Palestinian reports the IDF has been focusing its search efforts on Friday.
Another lead being investigated is the possibility the terrorists used a tunnel in order to hide the three teens once they grabbed them.
IDF sources stressed that both soldiers and civilians are constantly cautioned against kidnapping attempts, but that terror organizations remain motivated to continue their efforts. Ynet's defense and security analyst Ron Ben Yishai noted that warnings of potential attacks, specifically kidnappings, have increased in the last few days, these attempts could be motivated by several issues including the ongoing hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Hamas issued several statements Friday night welcoming the kidnapping - but did not claim responsibility for the disappearance. In the most recent statement, Hamas' international spokesman in Gaza, Hassan Badran, praised "the Hebron attack," saying it was "a success of high standard for the resistance in the West Bank."
But while a Salafist organization reportedly claimed responsibility, a security source estimated Friday night that the alleged statement was false.
"At the moment, no one has taken responsibility in order to negotiate (the return of the missing teens). It would be hard to keep abducted people alive in the West Bank, unlike the Gaza Strip, because of the 'strong (Infrared) signature' that three living people leave," he said.
The three teens disappeared on Thursday night. The next morning, friends and family gathered at the three family homes - in three different settlements near Jerusalem. They received updated from the police and the IDF and even gave DNA samples.
A prayer for the safe return of the teens took place at the Western Wall overnight. Some 200 people attended.
AP, Attila Somfalvi and Elior Levy contributed to this report.