An hours-long search for an Israeli presumed missing in the West Bank concluded on Thursday evening when he was found alive near the town of Kiryat Arba.
The case was initially being treated as a kidnapping, but the army later described the incident as a "prank."
Starting in the afternoon, security forces combed the area of Beit Anun, near Hebron, where Niv Asraf, a 22-year-old resident of Be'er Sheva, was persumed missing. IDF special forces units were deployed in the area as well.
Asraf's whereabouts were discovered after a friend who reported his disappearance admitted during questioning that he was lying.
The search efforts focused on the villages in the area east of Hebron. The IDF uitilized the extra forces stationed near Hebron because of the Passover holiday
"We are considering the incident to be a kidnapping until proven otherwise … IDF forces, Border Police, police and the Shin Bet are acting now to find the missing [man]," a senior defense official said earlier.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon met with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, head of the Shin Bet security service Yoram Cohen and GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Roni Numa to assess the situation.
Asraf's friend, whose initial testimony turned out to be false, phoned the police at 4:17 P.M. and told them that they had a flat tire between Kiryat Arba and Beit Anun. He told the police that Asraf had entered the village to get tools to change the tire, but never returned.
A police source tells Haaretz that the vehicle had no flat tire and that the missing person didn't go into Beit Anun to get tools. Security forces at the time said that the incident may be related to criminal activity.
The vehicle was parked just outside Kiryat Arba, on a road frequented by Israelis, so it wasn't clear why Asraf would have decided to enter the Palestinian village.
Soldiers near Beit Anun on Thursday evening. Photo: Olivier Fitoussi
Earlier, Eisenkot met with Numa in the area to discuss the ongoing search for the missing person.
"The contact with Israelis (regarding the search for the missing Israeli) is taking place between intelligence agencies," a Palestinian security source told Haaretz, "We as security forces are not really working in the area. The area is defined as Area C and is under complete control of Israeli security forces."
Meir Peretz, a cousin of the missing man, said: "The feelings are very bad. It struck us as thunder on a clear day. When it affects you it is very difficult. I am asking the people of Israel just before the Passover holiday that we need our son free, healthy and intact with us. I ask all of the people of Israel to pray. I understood he went to work and later told his mother he was going to the Cave of the Patriarchs [in Hebron]. We don't have any more details from the police and IDF."
A neighbor, Yitzhak Golan, said the family had a good relationship with the missing man, who has a brother and two sisters. The family is "shattered," they said.
IDF Spokesperson Gen. Moti Almoz said Thursday night that the “circumstances surrounding the incident are unclear, it is unknown if the incident is criminal or terror-relate, but it began differently than a ‘normal’ kidnapping.” According to Almoz, although the circumstances are unclear, the IDF is preparing its forces in the field in the event that it was a kidnapping.
Almoz added that “IDF forces have erected roadblocks in the Halhul and Beni Naim areas, near Hebron, and are conducting searches that are expected to expand in the coming hours. All possible angles, both criminal and hostile, are being checked. I cannot confirm anything, there is nothing certain, and generally, these initial hours are the most critical. We are treating this incident as a kidnapping, and we are unsure of the victim’s condition.”
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