JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli soldiers searched the West Bank on Friday for three missing teenagers from nearby settlements, one of them a U.S. citizen, feared kidnapped by Palestinian militants, authorities said.
Authorities offered little detail, with local media only reporting the hitchhiking teenagers left their Yeshiva, or religious seminary, on Thursday night and had not been seen since. Soldiers near Hebron combed the rocky hills of the West Bank searching for them Friday.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the disappearances, which comes after the formation of a Palestinian unity government following the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks.
Two Israeli defense officials said authorities believed the teens likely were kidnapped by Palestinian militants, without elaborating. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not allowed to brief journalists.
“The main mission is to ensure their return,” said Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, a military spokesman.
Tsuri Tsuf, a spokesman for a settlement where one of the teens is from, told Israel’s Channel 10 television that his community was “greatly worried” and gathered to pray for the safety of the youths. Authorities found a burned-out car during their search that investigators were examining.
Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency initially imposed a gag order Friday morning blocking local media from reporting on the incident. Later, an official familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that one of the teens was an American and that Israeli authorities notified U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to publicly brief journalists.
The three teens are from settlements in the West Bank, territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and that Palestinians are demanding as part of their future state along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
If Palestinians abducted the teens, it would be the first serious incident to challenge relations with Israel since the formation of a Palestinian unity government earlier this month, led by President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. The West and Israel consider Hamas a terror group because of its deadly attacks targeting civilians.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Abbas to talk about the missing teenagers and likely will call Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as well, a senior State Department official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Netanyahu told the teens’ families that Israel is “making every effort” to find them, his office said in a statement. He earlier said the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the teens’ safety.
Adnan Demeiri, spokesman of the Palestinian security services, dismissed Netanyahu’s claims, saying the teens’ disappearance happened in an area under Israeli security protection.
Hamas frequently calls for the abduction of Israelis and militants have kidnapped Israelis in the past. The Israeli military has said it has foiled multiple Palestinian kidnapping attempts in recent years and warns soldiers and civilians not to accept rides from strangers. Despite the warnings, hitchhiking remains common in Israel.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes in London contributed to this report.