JERUSALEM - Israel on Thursday identified two Hamas operatives as the main suspects in the disappearance of three teenagers - including an American boy -- who have been missing for two weeks.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, vanished June 12 as they were hitchhiking home from their high school in the West Bank.
Israel has accused Hamas of kidnapping the youths, and on Thursday the Israel Defense Forces confirmed it was hunting for two Hamas operatives identified as the main suspects.
"The two main terrorists involved are Marwan Kawasma and Amer Abu Aysha, two Hamas operatives from Hebron who became suspects immediately following the kidnapping," the IDF said in a statement.
Both Kawasma, who was born in 1985, and Abu Aysha, born in 1981, have previously served time in Israeli prisons, according to the IDF and Shin Beit, the Israeli security service.
Abu Aysha's brother was killed in November 2005 while trying to throw an explosive device at Israeli soldiers, the Israeli officials said. His father had been arrested in Israel several times on terror charges, the officials said.
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 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 Aysha'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 his son, who is married with three small boys, was not involved in politics.
A relative of Kawasma 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."