JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces were conducting intensive searches Friday for three Jewish teenagers who went missing the previous night in the West Bank and were feared kidnapped by Palestinian militants.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held urgent consultations with chiefs of the army and the security services, and a statement released by his office said that Israel holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for the safety of the missing.
The episode follows the formation of a Palestinian unity government earlier this month under a reconciliation accord between the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant Islamist group Hamas. Israel has denounced the move and declared that it will not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israel.
The missing teenagers were last seen late Thursday night in Gush Etzion, a bloc of Israeli settlements north of Hebron, the army said. The area is under Israeli security control and is not a zone under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel Radio reported that the youths were religious seminary students hitchhiking home for the weekend, and that one has United States citizenship. Young Jewish settlers often hitchhike on West Bank roads used by both Israeli and Palestinian motorists.
The army said it was conducting a widespread operation to locate the missing students, and news reports said that security forces had entered several Palestinian villages and towns in the Hebron area. A burned car was found in the town of Dura, but it was not immediately clear whether it was linked to the suspected abduction.
A leaflet signed by the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria/Palestine-West Bank claimed responsibility for what it said was the kidnapping of the three youths. Fighters from ISIS have made dramatic gains in fighting in recent days in Iraq, but no such group is known to operate in the West Bank. The leaflet, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, called the action a response to the killing of three Islamist militants by Israeli forces in Hebron last year, and part of efforts to release the Palestinian prisoners.
Leaders of Hamas and the militant Islamic Jihad group have called repeatedly for the kidnapping of Israelis to help secure the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, where some 5,000 are being held.
Khaled al Batsh, an Islamist leader in Gaza, reiterated the call in a sermon during mosque prayers on Friday, Israeli news outlets reported.
In 2011, Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier seized and held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for more than five years.
The issue of the prisoners, which resonates widely in Palestinian society, has gained prominence in recent weeks because of a hunger strike by about 300 inmates protesting the Israeli policy of detention without trial. Nearly 200 Palestinians are currently held without charges for renewable periods of three to six months.
Dozens of hunger-striking prisoners have been hospitalized, and Netanyahu has pressed for passage of legislation that would authorize force-feeding in cases of a serious health risk.
According to Israels Shin Bet security service, there has been a recent increase in attempts by jailed Palestinian militants to orchestrate abductions of Israelis in order to obtain the release of prisoners. In the past nine months there were 11 incidents in which jailed Palestinians made contact with operatives in the West Bank in attempts to organize abductions, the agency said.
Last year, a Palestinian lured an Israeli soldier to a West Bank village and killed him with the intention of trading the body for his jailed brother. In 2006, a teenage Jewish settler was kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank and fatally shot.
UPDATE: This story has been revised to note the claim of responsibility from a previously unknown group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Palestine-West Bank.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.