DURA, West Bank — Israel released the names late Thursday of two Palestinians it says are behind the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers who disappeared while making their way home from their religious school in the West Bank two weeks ago.
The two Palestinian suspects, Marwan Kawasma and Amer Abu Aysha, are operatives in the Islamist militant group Hamas, Israel’s domestic security agency said. Although they have yet to provide direct proof, Israeli intelligence officials said both men remain at large and are the subjects of a manhunt in the West Bank. The two men have been arrested previously for involvement in militant activities, including obtaining materials for explosives and recruiting other Hamas operatives, the security agency said.
Hamas has consistently denied direct involvement, although its leaders have vocally celebrated the teens’ abduction and called for more Israelis to be kidnapped. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, recently began working in a new unity government with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Since the three Israeli students — Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — disappeared on June 12, the Israeli military has conducted one of the largest and most aggressive sweeps in the West Bank in 10 years.
The kidnapping and the subsequent military operation, including house searches, raids, arrests and even deaths, have increased friction between Israelis and Palestinians, who just three months ago were in the midst of U.S-brokered peace negotiations.
“The closures started here about a week and a half ago; soldiers started coming, and its been terrifying for the children,” said Jihad Mohammad Dudeen, whose 15-year-old son Mohammad was shot and killed last Friday morning by Israeli soldiers during a raid on the town of Dura, near Hebron.
Mohammad Dudeen is one of five Palestinians shot and killed by Israeli forces over the last 14 days. An Israeli military spokesman said four of the five posed an immediate threat to soldiers — by throwing homemade grenades, rocks or fire bombs, for example — and that all the deaths will be investigated.
While searching for the abducted teens, Israel has pursued a parallel military operation to weaken Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank, arresting 371 Palestinians, most of them affiliated with Hamas, confiscating $23,000 and closing down Hamas civilian institutions, including student organizations in universities, charities and television stations.
In Dura, home to about 28,000 Palestinians, residents have been under lockdown since the Israeli youths disappeared. For Dudeen, who has just finished the traditional Islamic mourning period for his son, the last two weeks have been traumatic.
Not only has he lost a child but he also has no idea whether he will be able to return to his construction job in Israel or earn an income to support the remaining members of his family, he said. A large number of the town’s male residents do similar manual labor in Israel, but for the last two weeks they have been forced to stay home.
“The days that have passed are better than the days to come,” said Dudeen. “This is the situation. Of course, Israel is upset, but there is still no justification for their acts. I have lost my son, and Israel has not found the boys. It all seems to have been for nothing.”
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said the operation to recover the teenagers “is ongoing.”
“We know Hamas is behind it,” Lerner said, adding that the goal is to reduce the group’s operations in the West Bank and “send a clear message that it is not wise to abduct Israelis.” He also said an effort to gain intelligence on Hamas has been successful.
However, Israel’s security cabinet decided Wednesday to continue its wide-ranging operations until the three teens are found, and several right-wing politicians demanded that the pressure on the Palestinian civilian population continue, despite the start this weekend of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“We cannot allow a situation where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians come to Israeli beaches on Ramadan and celebrate while all of Israel is worried about the fate of the three abducted teenagers,” said Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, referring to the permits Israel usually grants during the month-long holiday.
“If the terrorists are sheltered amongst the Palestinian population, then we cannot continue with business as usual,” he said.
Military experts, however, warned this week that continuing with the restrictions at the same pace as the past two weeks might create an even more volatile situation.
Shaul Bartal, a retired major who served in various military positions in the West Bank, said that while the operation against Hamas likely provided Israel with a great deal of information, not only about the missing teens but other militant action, it should be stopped because of the growing anger among Palestinians.
“A lot of Palestinian Web sites are criticizing [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas,” said Bartal. “Abbas said the three children are human beings who should be returned to their families, but [Hamas leader Khaled] Mashaal called them soldiers in the Zionist army, and I think that view [among Palestinians] is more popular.”
Continuing this operation against Hamas could have an adverse effect and only serve to increase the group’s popularity, Bartal said.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.