JERUSALEM—Israeli troops today sealed off the West Bank city of Hebron and undertook house-to-house searches in an attempt to locate three Israeli teenagers kidnapped Thursday night.
The three – two aged 16 and one 19 – were abducted as they were attempting to hitchhike from the talmudical academy in which they are students to their homes for the weekend.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas was behind the incident. Hamas has denied the accusation. Concrete barricades were placed at all entrances to Hebron, a city of 170,000 residents, and more than 2,000 soldiers were brought into the massive manhunt.
Around 80 Hamas political leaders and activists on the West Bank have been detained in the past two days.
It is presumed that the kidnapping was an attempt to trade the hostages for some of the thousands of Palestinian security prisoners being held by Israel. The capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 resulted five years later in his exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians.
Major General (res.) Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, told Israel Radio that if the missing youths were being held in the West Bank Israel would most likely attempt to rescue them through military action rather than negotiate a prisoner exchange. Shalit was held captive in the Gaza Strip, which is under Hamas control while the West Bank is under Israeli control.
Although senior Israeli officials say that their working assumption is that the hostages are alive, other officials and commentators believe that it is possible that they were killed during the abduction or shortly afterwards. In the past, terrorist groups have attempted to win the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for information about where abducted Israeli soldiers were buried.
"On the basis of current information and the lessons of previous kidnappings on the West Bank," wrote military correspondent Amos Harel in Ha’aretz, "there’s not much room for optimism about the teenager’s fate."
A burned-out car found a few miles from the abduction scene, not far from Hebron, is believed by authorities to have been used by the kidnappers.
While one of the abducted children appears to have been able to call the police, the authorities disregarded the call as a prank. It was not until five hours later, when one of the parents notified the police that his son was missing, that the army began setting roadblocks up around Hebron.
As a result, it is theoretically possible that the kidnapped youths might have been transported during this period to the border of the Gaza Strip or to the border with Jordan. However, security authorities are apparently convinced that they remain in the Hebron area.