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July 28, 2014

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Thousands of Israelis rally for abducted youths

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

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

The mothers of the teens each told the crowd that the nation is united in praying for the safety of their teens. "They know that we will never give up trying to bring them home," said Rachelle Fraenkel, one of the mothers.

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 in the West Bank on June 12.

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 the teens. 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."

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

The kidnappings led to a spike in fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which remains under de facto Hamas control. The Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces seven years ago.

Late Sunday, the Israeli army said it intercepted two rockets fired out of Gaza, while Gaza militants opened fire at Israeli soldiers operating along the Gaza border. It said the Israeli force fired toward a suspect.

Palestinian medical officials said a Palestinian man was killed in the fighting. No further details were immediately available.

Earlier Sunday, Israel carried out airstrikes on 12 militant targets after a rocket attack, the military said. It said the targets included concealed rocket launchers, weapons manufacturing sites and what it called "terror activity" sites.

The airstrikes were in retaliation for six rockets from Gaza that struck Israel the previous evening. Two of the rockets hit a factory in the town of Sderot, setting it ablaze.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.

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