TEL AVIV : Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused the Hamas movement of kidnapping three teenagers as a massive West Bank manhunt for the missing youths entered its third day.
As troops wrapped up the biggest arrest operation in years, detaining 80 Palestinians overnight - many of them Hamas members - Netanyahu pointed the finger of blame directly at the Islamist movement. “This morning I can say what I could not say yesterday before the broad wave of arrests of Hamas people in Judaea and Samaria,” he said at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “Those who carried out the kidnapping of our youngsters are Hamas people - the same Hamas with whom Abu Mazen has forged a unity govt, which has very serious implications,” he said referring to Mahmud Abbas.
The youngsters, one of whom also holds a US passport, are students at Jewish seminaries in the West Bank, believed to have been snatched Thursday night from an area between Bethlehem and Hebron while hitchhiking.
They have been identified as Gilad Shaer, 16, from Talmon settlement near Ramallah, Naftali Frenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, from Elad, both in central Israel.
Their disappearance came 10 days after the establishment of a new Palestinian government of technocrats pieced together by Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas following a unity agreement between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.
The reconciliation with Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction, has enraged Israel, with Netanyahu placing responsibility for the teens’ safe return on the shoulders of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
His accusation was derided by Hamas. “Netanyahu’s statements accusing Hamas of kidnapping the (teenagers) are stupid,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP. “These arrests are aimed at breaking the movement and it won’t succeed.”
He said the wave of arrests overnight, which included Hamas MPs and former ministers, showed Israel had no idea who was responsible.
“The arrest of PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) members and Hamas leaders is a new Israeli aggression and shows they are flailing around in the dark, and we ask the international community to stop this crime,” he said. But Netanyahu remained firm that “Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday’s kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers.” “Hamas denials do not change this fact,” he said in a statement to the foreign media, without offering evidence.
The Israeli premier said that since the Palestinian unity agreement there had been “an increase in terror activity emanating from the West Bank.”
He warned of a Hamas takeover of that territory, currently controlled by Abbas’s PA.
The arrests came after Netanyahu ordered the security forces to “use all tools at their disposal” to find the teenagers, with the army saying “approximately 80 Palestinian suspects” had been detained.
As the search entered its third day, the defence ministry imposed a complete lockdown on Hebron and the surrounding area, and also limited access to and from Gaza to humanitarian cases only, while only fuel was being allowed in through the southern goods crossing.
Inside Hebron, Israeli paratroopers fanned out across the streets, sealing off all entrances to the city, while to the east, troops with police dogs raided Taffuh village, forcing some people out of their homes, an AFP correspondent said.
Across the West Bank, scores of Jewish settlements on Sunday refused entry to Palestinian labourers, in line with a directive from the Yesha Settlers’ Council.
The aim was to “put pressure” on the Palestinian public not to cover up for the kidnappers, a council statement said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the kidnapping.
“He expresses his solidarity with the families of the abducted and calls for their immediate release,” his spokesman said.
Overnight, hundreds of people gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to pray for the safe return of the teenagers with another mass prayer session scheduled for 1600 GMT.
Also overnight, Israel’s air force hit three targets in Gaza in answer to cross-border militant rocket fire in what was the second consecutive night of retaliatory strikes.