Israeli official says missing teens presumed alive, held by Palestinian militants

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister said Saturday that the military is determined to find three missing teenagers, one of whom is an American, who he said are presumed alive and believed to be held by Palestinian militants.

Security forces searched the West Bank for a second day Saturday, looking for the teens who disappeared late Thursday, reportedly while hitchhiking home.

The Israeli military identified them as Naftali Frenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. Israeli television station Channel 10 named Frenkel as the U.S. citizen that officials earlier mentioned.

Troops arrested more than a dozen Palestinians in connection to the case and are also examining footage from security cameras.

If confirmed that the three teenagers were seized by Palestinian gunmen, it would be the biggest kidnapping by such militant groups in recent memory in the West Bank.

Israeli-Palestinian tensions already were strained at the time of Thursday’s suspected kidnapping, in part because of the recent formation of a Palestinian unity government that has the backing of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Saturday that Israel has thwarted more than a dozen kidnapping attempts by Palestinian militants so far this year.

“It appears this event slipped under our radar, but we will not rest until we free the youths and put our hands on the terrorists who are responsible for this operation,” Yaalon said.

“As long as we don’t know otherwise, our working assumption is that they are alive,” he said.

Israel’s government held Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responsible for the fate of the teens.

“The current crisis is a direct result of the decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to force a political alliance with these Hamas terrorists,” said Mark Regev, a government spokesman.

Hamas, branded a terror group by the West for its attacks aimed at civilians, has been involved in kidnappings of Israelis in the past. The group routinely claims responsibility if involved in an attack, but has not claimed Thursday’s suspected kidnappings.

Palestinian officials also rejected Israel’s attempts to blame Abbas, noting that Israel retains overall security control in the West Bank.

Despite the charged rhetoric, Palestinian security forces were cooperating with Israeli counterparts in trying to find the teens, a Palestinian official said.

Abbas has said security coordination in the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinians, usually aimed at tracking down Islamic militants, will continue despite the unity government.

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