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Israel identifies suspects in alleged kidnapping

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Thursday identified two well-known Hamas operatives in the West Bank as the central suspects in the recent disappearance of three Israeli teenagers, in the first sign of progress in a frantic two-week search for the missing youths.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said the two men have been missing since the teenagers disappeared, and that a large manhunt was underway.

In a statement, Israel’s Shin Bet security service identified the men as Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh. It said both men are activists from the Hamas militant group in the West Bank city of Hebron, near where the youths disappeared on June 12.

Israel has accused Hamas of kidnapping the three teens, who disappeared as they were hitchhiking home. But until Thursday, it had provided no evidence to support the claim. It said both Qawasmeh, who was born in 1985, and Abu Aisha, who was born in 1981, have served time in Israeli prisons.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who publicly condemned the kidnapping in a high-profile Arab gathering in Saudi Arabia, to end a unity government he formed with the backing of Hamas earlier this month.

“I now expect President Abbas, who said important things in Saudi Arabia, to stand by those words (and) to break his pact with the Hamas terrorist organization that kidnaps children and calls for the destruction of Israel,” he said.

Netanyahu has made similar calls throughout the crisis, saying Abbas cannot claim to be seeking peace while also having an alliance a group committed to Israel’s destruction. Hamas, which Israel and the West consider a terrorist group, has no formal role in the government, and Abbas has said the Cabinet remains committed to his policies.

Following the disappearance of the teens, Israel launched its broadest ground operation in the West Bank in nearly a decade, rounding up nearly 400 Palestinians, most of them Hamas activists. The search for the teens – Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship – has become an obsession in Israel, with intensive media coverage and prayer vigils.

Hamas officials in Hebron confirmed the two suspects were members, and said Israeli troops have targeted the men’s homes since the beginning of the operation. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears for their safety, said the brothers and wives of the two men had been taken into custody, though the women have since been released. They said troops had entered the homes several times, conducting intense searches and confiscating items as evidence.

Abu Aisheh’s father, Omar, said he last saw his son at a wedding party on June 12 before he disappeared later that night. “I don’t know where he is,” he said, asking whether Israel might have arrested him.

He said Israeli forces have arrested seven family members, including two other sons, and that the family’s homes have been raided eight times.

“They have searched every item of the house, every centimeter of the house,” he said, including a sheep pen outside the home. “They have turned the whole house upside down, but they did not find anything.”

He claimed Amer, who is married with three small boys, was not involved in politics, but acknowledged that his son had spent seven months in Israeli custody in 2005.

He also said he himself had been arrested by Israel in 1995 for hiding a Hamas fugitive – and said Israel had demolished his home as punishment. He said another son was killed by Israel in 2005. The Israeli army confirmed the death, saying he had been throwing a bomb at Israeli troops at the time.

A relative of Qawasmeh declined comment, fearing Israeli retribution.

While Abbas has refused Israeli calls to break up his alliance with Hamas, he has instructed his security forces to continue a controversial policy of security coordination with the Israelis.

A senior Palestinian intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the two suspects are believed to be hiding and that Palestinian security forces were also searching for them.

He said the fact that the two men have been missing since the kidnapping is “clear evidence they have links with the abduction.”

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.