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.
Israeli media reported that despite the friction, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were working together in the West Bank to find the teens.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Abbas to talk about the missing teenagers, and discussed the situation with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, at a meeting in London.
“We are working with the government of Israel and with the Palestinian Authority to try to ensure the situation is resolved quickly and that the three teenagers are safely reunited with their families,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that Kerry also had spoken with the Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu told Kerry he holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for the teens’ safety. “This is the result of a murderous terror organization entering the government,” it quoted Netanyahu as saying.
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.
While such incidents are relatively rare, it would not the first instance of Palestinians abducting Israelis.
Last year, a Palestinian lured an Israeli soldier to a village in the West Bank and killed him in hopes of trading the body for his jailed brother. And in 2001, a Palestinian woman lured an Israeli teenage boy over the Internet to the West Bank where he was killed by waiting Palestinian gunmen.
The woman, Amna Muna, was released in 2011 along with over a thousand other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, held captive in Gaza by Hamas-allied militants for more than five years.
Netanyahu told the teens’ families that Israel is “making every effort” to find them, his office said in an earlier statement.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes in London contributed to this report.