ISRAELI troops arrested around 80 Palestinians yesterday, including dozens of members of Hamas, in an overnight raid in the West Bank as Israel’s prime minister accused the Islamic militant group of kidnapping three teenagers who went missing nearly three days ago.
The crisis escalated tensions between Israel and the new Palestinian government, which is headed by Western-backed president Mahmoud Abbas and backed by Hamas.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, below, has condemned Mr Abbas’s agreement with the militant group, and said he would hold him responsible for the safety of the youths, who apparently disappeared while hitchhiking in the West Bank late on Thursday. The three, one of whom holds American citizenship, have not been heard from since.
Palestinian officials condemned the overnight crackdown and rejected Mr Netanyahu’s contention that they are responsible. Hamas, meanwhile, praised the apparent kidnapping but stopped short of accepting responsibility.
Speaking to his cabinet yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said: “Those who perpetrated the abduction of our youths were members of Hamas, the same Hamas that Abu Mazen [Abbas] made a unity government with. This has severe repercussions.”
Mr Netanyahu did not say how Israel established that Hamas was responsible.
Palestinian militants have repeatedly threatened to kidnap Israelis, hoping to use them as bargaining chips to win the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. This would be the first time three civilians have been taken together.
Deputy defence minister Danny Danon said Israel “will extract a heavy price from the Palestinian leadership” and will “do everything necessary to return the boys to their families”.
He said: “We are not ruling out any options when it comes to possible actions against the Palestinian government in both Gaza and Ramallah.”
The overnight raid was concentrated in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, in the area where the youths disappeared.
A Hamas website said more than 60 of those arrested were members of the movement. The Israelis also detained supporters of Islamic Jihad, a smaller Palestinian militant group.
“Palestinian terrorists will not feel safe, will not be able to hide and will feel the heavy arm of the Israeli military capabilities,” a military spokesman said.
The Palestinians’ self-rule government, which administers 38 per cent of the West Bank, has insisted it is not to blame, saying the teens went missing in territory under full Israeli control.
“The Israeli government cannot blame the Palestinians for security issues in areas that are not controlled by them,” said Ehab Bseiso, spokesman for the Palestinian unity government.
Asked about Mr Netanyahu’s claim that Hamas carried out the kidnapping, Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said “this is something we have no information on”.
In its first statement on the issue, Hamas referred to “the success of the kidnapping” and said that “the movement pays tribute to the heroes who are behind the kidnapping”. However, it did not claim responsibility.
In the Gaza Strip, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed Mr Netanyahu’s claims of Hamas involvement in the abductions as “silly”.
Despite the exchange of accusations, security officials from Israel and Mr Abbas’ forces have been co-operating closely in trying to find the kidnappers.