Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused members from the Islamist movement Hamas of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.
His remarks were made after troops arrested 80 Palestinians overnight, many of them Hamas members, in what was the widest arrest operation in years.
“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, 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 government, which has very serious implications,” he said referring to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Netanyahu was speaking at the start of a special session of the weekly cabinet meeting held at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri was quick to dismiss the allegations, saying they were “stupid” and “intelligence-driven”.
He also warned Israel against escalating the crisis saying that: “Israel will be responsible for any escalation against the Palestinian people and its leaders.”
Blockades were also put up throughout much of the West Bank with unconfirmed reports emerging that several Palestinian towns are on lockdown. On Saturday, Israel closed crossings into Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, although on Sunday Egypt reopened its Rafah crossing into the strip to allow pilgrims and special cases to leave the strip.
The Israeli military meanwhile continued to pound Gaza from the air, with eight strikes happening overnight. However, authorities continued to insist that the move was in response to rocket attacks that happened on Saturday and refused to link the operation to the kidnapping.
The disappearance of the three teenagers came 10 days after a new Palestinian unity government of technocrats was sworn in, following a reconciliation agreement between leaders in the West Bank and Hamas in a move which has enraged Israel.
The Israeli army had announced on Saturday that the three teenagers missing from the West Bank were kidnapped, “presumably by Palestinians.”
“We believe that they have indeed been kidnapped by presumed Palestinians,” a senior officer told journalists, without giving further details on who was behind the abduction.
Netanyahu then on Saturday said he held Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas directly responsible for the wellbeing of the teenagers, who have not been seen since Thursday night. The three teens went missing when they tried to hitchhike to the city of Modi’in, north of Jerusalem from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which rests in the West Bank.
The Palestinian’s quickly slammed Netanyahu’s claims with general Adnan al-Damiri, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority’s security services, describing Netanyahu’s suggestions as “baseless.”
“Even if there was an earthquake, Netanyahu would blame the Palestinian Authority,” Damiri told AFP.
Damiri also stressed that the PA has no authority over the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which is under full Israeli control.
The incident comes as Israel continues to pile pressure on the new Palestinian unity government, formed early last week under a reconciliation deal between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, dubbed a terrorist organization by Israel.
According to Ofir Gendelman, Netanyahu’s official spokesperson, the Israeli prime minister telephoned US Secretary of State John Kerry and described the situation on the ground since the announcement of the unity deal as “destructive.” Kerry also telephoned Abbas, a Palestinian source told AFP.
A large-scale search of the area by paratroopers and other battalions is underway with teams working on the assumption that the teenagers are alive, according to Minister of Defence Moshe Ya’alon.
Ya’alon told reporters that there have been 14 attempted kidnappings since the beginning of 2014, adding that Israel “will not rest until we get our hands on the terrorists behind this.”
Search, Strikes and Rockets Continue
Despite the political tensions, the search is being carried out in coordination with security forces from the Palestinian Authority, and “tens of Palestinians” have been arrested in the process.
Substantial reinforcements have been brought in, including Special Forces and an airborne brigade. Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Netanyahu is to convene the security cabinet on Saturday evening to discuss the issue.
Troops have now closed the main crossings into the Gaza Strip to prevent the teenagers from being smuggled into the territory, where the Hamas movement remains dominant despite the formation of the Palestinian unity government.
Recent weeks have seen Israel hit by a string of rocket attacks from Gaza, and the Israelis launching several air strikes.
On Saturday, a rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel early Saturday without causing any casualties or damage, the army said.
In response, Israel carried out air strikes on southern Gaza “hitting a site of terrorist activity and a weapons depot,” an army statement said.
Hamas said Apache gunships had fired on a training camp of its armed wing in Khan Yunis and empty ground in Rafah, on the Egyptian border, without causing any casualties.
Israel has held Abbas responsible for all violence emanating from Gaza and for West Bank security since he signed a reconciliation deal with Hamas and the new government was formed.
(Middle East Eye – http://www.middleeasteye.net)