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Middle East

Israeli search for kidnapped youths turns into push against Hamas

Troops arrest 50 more Palestinians and comb villages near West Bank site of teenagers’ abduction

The Israeli military yesterday signalled that its search operation for three youths abducted in the occupied West Bank has expanded into a broader push against the militant Hamas movement that it blames for the kidnapping.

“The Israel Defence Forces are acting in a scope that is widening,” said the army chief of staff Lt-Gen Benny Gantz. “This event will not pass without Hamas paying a heavy price,” added the Defence Minister, Moshe Yaalon, yesterday evening.

Troops yesterday arrested another 50 Palestinians during sweeps, most of them leaders or activists in Hamas, including Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Palestinians reported troops were combing villages around Hebron, near the site of the abduction and also had entered locales close to Jenin in the northern West Bank.

“Our message is it doesn’t pay to carry out terror attacks against Israelis,” said army spokesman, Lt-Col Peter Lerner. The military was also reportedly discussing further punitive steps against Hamas including deporting Hamas leaders from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip and demolishing their homes. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said last night that “we have to be prepared for the possibility [the operation] will take time.”

In Jelazoun refugee camp near Ramallah, a 20-year-old Palestinian, Ahmed al-Sbarin, was killed during clashes that erupted after troops entered the area. Thousands turned out for his funeral in the camp and renewed clashes broke out afterwards, Palestinians said.

Mr Netanyahu and the army say Hamas abducted the youths, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Frankel, both 16 and Eyal Yifrah, 19, each of them seminary students, but has not, to date, produced any evidence to support the assertion.

The three teenagers are thought to have been hitchhiking near a West Bank settlement when they were abducted. Mr Netanyahu says that the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas bears responsibility because it formed a government recently in which the Islamic movement helped to choose the ministers.

But dovish Israeli lawmakers say there is no connection between the kidnapping and the formation of the government. According to the army there have been 60 attempts to carry out abductions  in the past 12 months.

In the view of Yossi Alpher, the former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, “the more time goes by the less likely it is that the three will be found alive. It is even possible that the abduction won’t be solved.

“This is morphing to a great extent into a campaign against Hamas. Netanyahu is exploiting an opportunity that it can be done without serious criticism. Abbas can hardly object and may even be pleased.” Mr Alpher added.

Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority condemned the kidnapping and the “series of Israeli violations” that followed it.