Israeli-Palestinian tensions were already running high over Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s formation of a unity government that is backed by Hamas.
With senior Israeli officials now calling for a crackdown on Hamas, and perhaps even the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by Mr Abbas, there is growing concern of a major escalation.
It is not clear how far Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will go in trying to dismantle Hamas, considering the risk of further destabilising the region. Despite Mr Netanyahu’s verbal attacks against Mr Abbas, he does not want to see a collapse of the pragmatic Palestinian leader’s self-rule government in the West Bank.
The Israeli government is reportedly considering a series of measures, including the deportation of Hamas leaders from the West Bank to Gaza, where Hamas remains the de facto power despite the unity deal.
The three Jewish seminary students went missing late last Thursday while hitchhiking at a West Bank bus stop near the Palestinian city of Hebron. They were on their way home, two to towns inside Israel, and the third to a West Bank settlement.
Large numbers of Israeli troops have been involved in a huge search since then, going house-to-house in some areas.
Israeli forces have arrested more than 150 Palestinians, most of them members of Hamas, over the past four days. Among those detained were ten Hamas legislators – one-third of the Hamas representatives from the West Bank in the long-defunct Palestinian parliament. The most senior among those detained yesterday was Parliament Speaker Abdel Aziz Dweik.
Mr Netanyahu has alleged that Hamas carried out the kidnappings but provided no evidence. He has also held Mr Abbas responsible for the fate of the teens and claimed the unity government created the atmosphere for the kidnappings.
The Israeli premier’s office said Mr Netanyahu called Mr Abbas yesterday, a fairly rare contact between the two leaders. Mr Netanyahu called on Mr Abbas to help with efforts to rescue the abducted teens and arrest the Hamas kidnappers.
Mr Abbas’s aides have rejected Mr Netanyahu’s contention that the Palestinian self-rule government is ultimately responsible for the abductions, saying Israel is in overall control of the West Bank.
The junction where the teenagers were last seen is under Israeli control and is commonly used by both soldiers and Jewish settlers.
The missing three were named as Naftali Frankel and Gil-ad Sha’er, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. Mr Frankel holds dual Israeli-US citizenship.
In a statement issued yesterday, Mr Abbas said: “The Palestinian leadership condemns the series of events over the last week, beginning with the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens and ending with a series of Israeli violations.”
He referred to the arrests and the killing of a 20-year-old Palestinian by Israeli army fire yesterday, during a confrontation between stone throwers and soldiers.