The Israeli army is searching for three Jewish teenagers who disappeared while returning home from their religious school in the occupied West Bank, in what the military is calling a suspected kidnapping, officials have said.
The students, aged 16 to 19, disappeared on Thursday night around 10pm local time after leaving Kfar Etzion, an illegal settlement between Jerusalem and Hebron.
Two of them are students at a yeshiva, a Jewish seminary, in the settlement.
An army spokesman said the trio may have tried to hitchhike to their homes to Modi’in, a city in central Israel, before they disappeared.
“We are concentrating a large intelligence effort on trying to locate the missing,” said Brigadier General Moti Almoz. Soldiers also found a burned-out car in the area on Friday, but it is unclear whether the two are related.
The army has set up checkpoints and deployed additional troops in the area, and there were reports of raids on Palestinian homes in villages around Hebron.
Israeli media were largely barred from covering the story until late Friday afternoon because of a military gag order.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz briefly reported a shootout near Hebron between Israeli soldiers and unknown gunmen, but removed the story later.
Palestinian media, and the Israeli channel i24, also reported an operation to free the students in which five Palestinians were killed.
The army denied those stories, and they too were eventually taken down.
“These rumors have no basis,” Almoz said.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Israel “holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for the safety of the missing [students].”
Major General Adnan al-Damiri, the spokesman for the Palestinian security services, dismissed the statement as a “joke,” saying that Israel had not asked the PA for help in the search.
“They were in an area under the occupation’s control, according to the Oslo Accords, and not in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority,” Damiri told the Quds Network, a Palestinian news website.
Almoz said on Friday night that the army was starting to coordinate with the PA security forces.