Israelis rally for abducted youths

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TEL AVIV, Israel -- Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered Sunday night in a central Tel Aviv square to draw attention to the plight of three Israeli teenagers abducted earlier this month in the West Bank.

The crowd packed Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, holding Israeli flags and posters of the three missing teens. Singers performed; politicians and relatives of the youths addressed the gathering.

The mothers of the teens told the crowd that the nation is united in praying for the safety of their teens.

The three teens -- Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship -- have not been heard from since hitchhiking home June 12 in the West Bank.

Israel has accused Hamas militants of kidnapping the teens, and the army has launched its broadest ground operation in the West Bank in nearly a decade in search of them. Israel has arrested about 400 Palestinians, most of them Hamas activists, and has identified two wanted Hamas operatives as the chief suspects. The two men remain on the run.

The plight of the teens has become a national obsession. Tens of thousands of people held a mass prayer for them shortly after their abduction, and there have been daily vigils and speeches on their behalf.

Sunday night's demonstration was perhaps the largest public gathering to date, taking place as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delivering a policy speech. He said he had ordered the army "to spare no effort to bring them home."

Mr. Netanyahu has called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to end a newly formed unity government with Hamas in response to the kidnappings. Mr. Abbas has strongly condemned the abductions but so far has left his Cabinet intact. Hamas does not sit in the government, and Mr. Abbas says his Cabinet supports his program of seeking peace with Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu declared in a hard-hitting policy speech at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University that under any future peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel would insist on maintaining security control of the West Bank "for a very long time."

Pointing to the rise of Islamic extremism in the region, and particularly the swift onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which he said could soon threaten Jordan, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to broaden and toughen his own security requirements, further dimming the prospects for renewed talks or any chance of a deal after the collapse of U.S.-brokered negotiations in April.

In his address, Mr. Netanyahu said the turmoil in the Middle East also offered an opportunity for enhanced regional cooperation among moderate forces with shared interests. He said Israel would support international efforts to shore up Jordan, though he called it a stable country with a strong army that is able to defend itself. For the first time he openly endorsed Kurdish aspirations for independence.

The kidnappings led to a spike in fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which remains under de facto Hamas control.


The New York Times contributed.


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