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Israel presses Abbas over kidnaps, cracks down on Hamas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's help in securing the release of three kidnapped teenagers, as the army launched a massive crackdown on Islamist movement Hamas.

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's help on Monday in securing the release of three kidnapped teenagers, as the army launched a massive crackdown on Islamist movement Hamas.

Netanyahu's phone call to Abbas was their first direct political contact since 2012, and took place as Israel carried out a vast search operation in the West Bank to find the three youths, whom the Israeli premier said were kidnapped by Hamas militants last week.

As the manhunt entered its fourth day, Israeli troops arrested scores of Hamas members, among them MPs and former ministers, bringing the total number of Palestinians rounded up since Friday to 150, the biggest sweep in the territories in years.

"I expect you to help in the return of the kidnapped youths and the capture of the kidnappers," Netanyahu told Abbas.

"The Hamas kidnappers went out from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority and returned to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority," he said.

So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility, with Hamas dismissing Israel's accusations as "stupid".

Abbas's office issued a statement condemning "the kidnapping of three Israeli youths".

But it also denounced Israel's "raids on Palestinian homes" and arrests of "many innocents" during which a 19-year-old Palestinian was killed.

Ahmad Arafat Sabarin, was shot dead during clashes in Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah which erupted when troops arrived on an arrest mission, medics told AFP.

After the shooting, Egypt urged Israel to show "restraint" in its crackdown on Hamas.

Although arrests have taken place across the West Bank, troops are focusing their search on the southern city of Hebron and the surrounding area, home to some 663,000 Palestinians.

Overnight, soldiers arrested more than more than 40 Palestinians, the army said, including parliament speaker Aziz Dweik, who is a Hamas member.

A Palestinian intelligence officer told AFP that the kidnapping bore the hallmarks of a Hamas operation, noting that the Islamist movement had a policy of keeping its captives alive in the hope of securing a prisoner exchange.

The crisis emerged 10 days after the establishment of a new Palestinian government of technocrats, the first fruits of a reconciliation deal between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza which has been furiously denounced by Israel.

Netanyahu convened his security cabinet later Monday to discuss possible punitive steps against Hamas, which Walla news site said might include banishing Hamas members from the West Bank to Gaza and "destroying their homes."

"This is a serious incident with serious consequences, and we will react responsibly and firmly," he told reporters in Jerusalem.

"We need to be prepared for the possibility it will take time."

Pundits said the Netanyahu government had been presented with a "golden opportunity" to deal both a military and a diplomatic blow to its Islamist for.

"Had Israel arrested dozens of Hamas leaders and imposed a curfew on large areas (of the West Bank) a week ago, the Palestinian Authority would have raised an outcry... Today the Palestinian Authority is silent," wrote Alex Fishman in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

Should the Israeli crackdown result in a further escalation around the Gaza border, it would play right into Israel's hands, he wrote.

Israeli warplanes carried out bombing raids during the night after militants fired two rockets over the Gaza border, both of them intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system.

Palestinian medics said four people, including a three-year-old girl, were moderately wounded by shrapnel.

The missing three are Gilad Shaer, 16, from Talmon settlement near Ramallah, Naftali Frenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, from Elad, both in central Israel.

Frenkel's uncle appealed to his nephew's suspected kidnappers to show "mercy" to the boys, as police and television cameras vied for space on the leafy street outside the family home in Nof Ayalon.

"I'd just like to send a message to anyone who listens... about human mercy, about a belief I think all of us share in God above... (and) mercy to young children," Yishai Frenkel told AFP.

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