The three Israeli teens who went missing in the West Bank on Thursday night have been abducted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Saturday night, vowing that Israel would find them and bring them home.
"Our boys were kidnapped by a terror group, undoubtedly," Netanyahu told a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. "They were kidnapped by terror group."
The prime minister, grim-faced and flanked by IDF Chief Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, was speaking after a special security assessment with the two and senior IDF officials. He said that Israel views the Palestinian Authority as responsible and demands its full cooperation.
The three – Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16 – have been missing since Thursday night, and a massive manhunt has been in ongoing since. The current assessment is that the boys were kidnapped, but are still alive and somewhere within the West Bank.
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"We are in the midst of a massive operation to find and return the three missing youths," Netnayahu told the press conference.
"In light of the situation I cannot say everything, but I can say the following: Our boys were kidnapped by a terrorist organization."
A Hamas online forum on Friday night carried the claim that the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) were responsible for seizing the three youths, however it is unclear if this was the prime minister's intention.
Netanyahu outlined his instructions to security forces, "to implement all the tools we have to find them (and) prevent their transfer to Gaza or another place (and) prepare all of our forces for any possible scenario."
He also asserted that despite the fact that the culprits were not affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, Israel demands "from the PA and its leader (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas - from whose area the kidnappers undertook their mission - to aid us in our search operation."
Netanyahu rejected claims that the attack was not the PA's responsiblity.
"We see in Abbas and the PA as responsible for any terror act undertaken on its territory, be it in the West Bank or Gaza," he said.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he views the Palestinian Authority as responsible for the kidnapping, while the Palestinians claim that the kidnapping took place in Area C, which is under Israeli security control, and thus not their responsibility.
"The claim that the PA is not responsible because the kidnapping took place in an area controlled by Israel is blatantly false," he said.
The prime minister also took direct aim at the Palestinian unity government, repeating his stance that any government that includes terrorist groups cannot hold negotiations.
"All terror organizations – Hamas, Islamic Jihad – are dedicated to the destruction of Israel... There is no possibility of talking about peace with Israel while having a government with Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel."
Netanyahu said he had been in touch with the families of the missing teens, and paid tribute to their resilience.
"I spoke with the parents before Shabbat, and I told them we are doing everything Israel can do to bring their kids – our kids – back home. These parents expressed strength and restraint which are commendable in such a difficult hour. In these dark hours, the nation's heart is with the families."
Opposition Chairman Isaac Herzog told Ynet on Saturday that he had spoken with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and was updated regarding the latter's conversation with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Abbas told Kerry they are cooperating with the effort to find the missing teens, and that the PA are using all their power to help them."
Herzog further said that "a powder keg is rolling our way. I am concerned about the situation would deteriorate and I hope that the security forces and police are preparing to make sure no redundant altercations take place," referencing growing fears that settlers and Palestinian will clash overnight in wake of the kidnapping.
Force continue search
More than 2,000 IDF forces have been dispatched to the West Bank to search for the boys. IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz said the current mission was to return the boys home safely. “We are concentrating all of our intelligence efforts on trying to track down the missing individuals,” he said.
Even so, an IDF source told Ynet that the current assessment was that the searches would not end Saturday. He said that based on past experience, the military believes that the three are still in the West Bank.
"Historically, someone kidnapped in Judea and Samaria is found either dead or alive in Judea and Samaria," the source said.
Gantz met Saturday morning with MIlitary Intelligence chief 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.
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 Abbas by phone about the missing yeshiva students.
The PA has pledged to work with Israel to help find the three and expressed hope the three would return home safely. The comments as much as the cooperation led Hamas to slam Abbas.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who was in London Friday 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 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and had afterwards spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
"We are following the reports and are very concerned for (the teens') safety," said the US official. "We are working with the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority in order to reach a speedy conclusion and reunite the three youths with their families." The US is supporting full cooperation between the two sides, he added.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently on a tour of Africa states, has received updates on the situation from the prime minister and defense chiefs.
Meanwhile, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, Mohammed Madani, on Friday evening denounced Netanyahu for his rhetoric blaming the PA for the suspected abduction.
"Israeli efforts should focus on finding the three youths instead of spreading blame and placing responsibility on a great number of factors," said Madani, who has responsibility for contact with the Israel public. "Netanyahu placing blame on the PA is incitement and cheap exploitation given that there is no justification for this, and aims to score political points."
He added that, "The PA has in the past returned dozens of Israelis who mistakenly entered the West Bank. We greatly hope that these youths will be returned safely home. The Palestinian security establishment is making every effort to help find the youths."
A Hamas online forum on Friday night carried the claim that the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) were responsible for seizing the three youths.