Israel has blamed the militant Hamas movement for the abduction of three teenagers in the occupied West Bank, as the army mounted a third day of sweeps for the perpetrators and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was braced for damaging consequences to his people’s quest for statehood.
Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16 and Naftali Frenkel, 16 disappeared on Thursday night in the West Bank where they are seminary students. They are believed to have been abducted when they hitched a ride close to the Alon Shvut settlement.
Overnight on Saturday, the army arrested more than a hundred members and leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant group, throughout the West Bank in what it said was part of the efforts to find the youths. Palestinian Authority (PA) security agencies are providing assistance to the Israeli search operation, something Hamas condemned. An Israeli army spokeswoman last night also said that the three teens were abducted by Hamas
“Abbas is part of the casualties of this kidnapping no matter who is behind it and what is the declared purpose,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority. “The kidnapping is allowing [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to score points against Abbas and in the end it is not good for the image Abbas is trying to develop for his people. He has been successful in giving the impression the Palestinian people are peaceful and are seeking a just and peaceful solution. Such a development does not help him in pressing this impression.”
As an anxious Israeli public remained glued to news reports on radio and other media, Israel’s chief rabbis were in no mood to leave all the work to the army. They called for prayers last night on behalf of the teens at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and urged the recitation of Psalm 20, which says: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will make mention of the name of the Lord our God.”
The political efforts by Mr Netanyahu’s government to blame Mr Abbas in the kidnappings seemed as determined yesterday as the military’s efforts to locate the teenagers. “Those who carried out the abduction of our boys were members of Hamas. This has severe repercussions,” said Mr Netanyahu. Israeli media reports, which could not be immediately confirmed, quoted Palestinian security officials as saying that two Hamas members from the Hebron area have been missing since Thursday, the day of the abductions.
Hamas stopped short of a clear denial or confirmation of Mr Netanyahu’s allegation, while Abdullah Abdullah, a Palestinian politician close to Mr Abbas, said Mr Netanyahu did not really know who was behind the abductions. He suggested the Israeli leader was intent on smearing the national reconciliation government formed by Mr Abbas with Hamas participation in choosing the ministers.
In his remarks, Mr Netanyahu blamed Mr Abbas and the PA for the kidnappings, implying that they came about because of the April reconciliation agreement between Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas. “Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact. I believe the danger of that pact now should be clear to all. We have seen an increase in terror activity emanating from the West Bank.”
Israel’s Minister of Intelligence Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said: “The responsibility is of the Palestinian government because the attack emanated from its territory and was carried out by an organisation connected to the government.” Israel, he added, would have to “weigh what punishment to give Hamas and what to give the Palestinian Authority”.
But Omer Barlev, an MP from the opposition Labor Party, criticised the government for blaming Mr Abbas, saying this could undermine intelligence sharing with the PA. He accused Mr Netanyahu of making “a cynical attempt to use the crisis for political gain”, arguing that the Fatah-Hamas agreement “has nothing to do with Thursday’s kidnapping”.