Jerusalem: Israel`s defence minister today said he believes the three Jewish seminary students who went missing in the West Bank were kidnapped by Palestinian militants and that the military is determined to rescue the teens.
The three disappeared late Thursday in the West Bank, reportedly while hitchhiking. An official has said one is a US citizen.
Israeli troops have scoured the southern West Bank, near the Palestinian city of Hebron, and have arrested more than a dozen Palestinians.
If confirmed that the three teenagers, aged 16 and 19, were seized by Palestinian gunmen, it would be the biggest kidnapping by such militant groups in recent memory in the West Bank.
Israeli-Palestinian tensions already were strained at the time of Thursday`s suspected kidnapping, in part because of the recent formation of a Palestinian unity government that has the backing of the Islamic militant Hamas.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said today that Israel has thwarted dozens of kidnapping attempts by militants, including 14 so far this year.
"It appears this event slipped under our radar, but we will not rest until we free the youths and put our hands on the terrorists who are responsible for this operation," Yaalon said.
He added: "As long as we don`t know otherwise, our working assumption is that they are alive."
Israeli authorities clamped a partial gag order on the case. Israeli media have been reporting the incident almost non-stop, casting aside regular programming.
Today, local media published the names of the teens and their home communities, two West Bank settlements and one in Israel.
Israel`s government held Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responsible for the fate of the teens.
"The current crisis is a direct result of the decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to force a political alliance with these Hamas terrorists," said Mark Regev, a government spokesman.
Hamas, branded a terror group by the West for its attacks aimed at civilians, has been involved in kidnappings of Israeli soldiers in the past.
The group routinely claims responsibility if involved in an attack, but has not claimed Thursday`s suspected kidnappings.