- POSTED: 16 Jun 2014 03:33
- UPDATED: 16 Jun 2014 03:34
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Islamist Hamas movement of kidnapping three teenagers on the third day of a massive West Bank manhunt for the missing youths.
JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused the Islamist Hamas movement of kidnapping three teenagers on the third day of a massive West Bank manhunt for the missing youths.
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 group.
"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.
The youths, one of whom also holds a US passport, are students at Jewish seminaries in the West Bank, and are believed to have been snatched late Thursday 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.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the abduction, saying "many indications point to Hamas' involvement" and noting that the Islamist militant movement "has used kidnapping in the past".
Israeli media reported that police had received an emergency call late Thursday, apparently from one of the three who said "we've been kidnapped", but failed to act since it was not clear and suspected to be a prank.
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, enraged Israel, with Netanyahu placing responsibility for the teens' safe return on the shoulders of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, however, denied Netanyahu's "false accusations" and warned of "clear Israeli intentions to broaden settlement activity", using the kidnapping as "a pretext".
Netanyahu's accusation was also 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 was "flailing around in the dark".
But Netanyahu insisted 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.
Israeli news site Walla said Palestinian intelligence was cooperating with Israel and focusing efforts on locating two Hebron Hamas members affiliated with the movement's military wing, who had been missing since Thursday evening.
According to Walla, Palestinian intelligence believes Hamas was behind the kidnapping.
The arrests came after Netanyahu ordered the security forces to "use all tools at their disposal" to find the three, with the army saying "approximately 80 Palestinian suspects" had been detained.
Army spokesman Brigadier General Motti Almoz noted the arrest of Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas.
Speaking to reporters, Almoz vowed to continue efforts in the coming days.
On the search's 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 allowed in through the southern goods crossing.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the kidnapping, expressing "solidarity" with the families of the three and calling for their "immediate release".
An International Committee of the Red Cross statement called for the "immediate and unconditional release of the three teenagers", stressing they "must be treated humanely" and offering to act as a "neutral intermediary".
Inside Hebron, Israeli paratroopers fanned out, sealing off entrances to the city, while to the east, troops with police dogs raided Taffuh village, forcing some people from their homes, an AFP correspondent said.
Tens of thousands of Jews also gathered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City to pray for the youths' safe return.