Gun battle flares as Israeli soldiers seek missing teens

Israeli soldiers patrol during operation to locate three missing teenagers, in the West Bank city of Hebron June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli soldiers patrol during operation to locate three missing teenagers, in the West Bank city of Hebron June 18, 2014.    Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

(Reuters) – Israeli forces traded gunfire with Palestinians on Thursday, the military said, in the fiercest street battles in the occupied West Bank since a search began for three Israeli teenagers missing for a week.

Hospital officials said three Palestinians suffered bullet wounds in the overnight clashes in Jenin, a militant stronghold and the scene of deadly fighting during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. There were no reported Israeli casualties.

In a statement, the military said about 300 Palestinians, including some who “hurled explosives and opened fire”, confronted soldiers who entered Jenin looking for the three seminary students.

Israel says the Hamas Islamist group abducted them last Thursday as they were hitchhiking near a Jewish settlement.

“The soldiers responded with live fire, identifying hits,” the statement said. It said 30 “terror suspects” were detained in the West Bank, bringing to 280 the number of Palestinians taken into custody over the past week.

Reuters photographers in Jenin heard heavy gunfire during the night but were kept away from the scene of the clashes by the Israeli army.

Israel has said its West Bank operation is two-fold: to find Gil-Ad Shaer and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19; and to deal a substantial blow to Hamas, a group dedicated to its destruction.

A statement issued by the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of using the teenagers’ disappearance as “a pretext to impose tough punishment against our people and besiege them” in violation of international humanitarian law.

Israeli raids have spread from house-to-house searches in Hebron, a flashpoint town in the area where the three went missing, to raids across the West Bank of institutions believed to provide funding and other support for Hamas.

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