By Jeffrey Heller
Israel said on Sunday Hamas militants had abducted three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, warning of “serious consequences” as it pressed on with a search and detained dozens of Palestinians.
The two 16-year-olds and a third man aged 19 disappeared on Thursday night in the West Bank, where they were seminary students in a Jewish settlement.
“Those who carried out the kidnapping of our youngsters are Hamas people,” Netanyahu told his cabinet, referring to the Palestinian Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip.
There has been no public claim of responsibility. Asked about Netanyahu’s remarks, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, stopped short of a clear denial or confirmation that it was involved.
Since the three went missing, the Israeli army has carried out house-to-house searches, round-ups and interrogations in the Palestinian city of Hebron and outlying villages.
In a statement, the military said that as part of the “effort to return the three abducted Israeli teenagers approximately 80 Palestinian suspects were detained in a widespread overnight operation”.
Palestinian officials put the number of people taken into custody so far by Israeli authorities at more than 100 and said they included at least seven Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament and several prisoners recently released by Israel.
The incident tests ties between the Israeli government and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which were frayed by his power-sharing deal in April with Hamas, a group that advocates Israel’s destruction.
In broadcast remarks at the cabinet session in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said Israel was focusing all its efforts on bringing the teenagers home.
“This will have serious consequences,” said Netanyahu, who has been overseeing security efforts at the main military headquarters in the Mediterranean city.
Abu Zuhri suggested that in casting blame on Hamas, the Israeli leader was trying to draw the group into disclosing whether it was behind the teenagers’ disappearance.
“These are stupid comments by Netanyahu and they are of an intelligence nature,” Abu Zuhri said.
DUAL U.S.-ISRAELI NATIONAL
Israel identified the seminary students as Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Sha’er and Naftali Frankel, who also holds U.S. citizenship.
Palestinian militants have said they want to kidnap Israelis to win concessions from the Israeli government, and the current incident coincides with a hunger strike by some 300 Palestinian prisoners protesting against detention without trial.
More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were freed in 2011 in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in the nearby Gaza Strip for more than five years.
In a televised statement on Saturday, Netanyahu said Abbas’s alliance with Hamas had emboldened Palestinian militants and demanded the Palestinian leader do “all that is necessary” to resolve the crisis.
Security coordination between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been close in recent years, despite the diplomatic impasse, and at U.S. urging Abbas was working with Israel in the search.
Palestinian security officials said they were helping Israeli counterparts. Hamas condemned that cooperation.