Netanyahu demands Palestinian help in search for missing teens


McClatchy Foreign Staff

With no signs of progress toward finding three Israeli teenagers thought to have been kidnapped Thursday in the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded help Monday from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and told Israelis it may take time until the episode is resolved.

“This is a serious event, and it will have serious consequences,” Netanyahu said, hinting at a crackdown on Hamas, the militant Islamist group he’s accused of abducting the teens.

The Israeli military said that about 40 more Palestinians were rounded up in overnight sweeps in the West Bank, including “Hamas leadership and operatives,” bringing the total of those arrested to 150. Among them were 10 Hamas legislators, including the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Aziz Dweik.

The Israeli security Cabinet met to consider further steps but no decisions were announced. Israeli news media reported that options under consideration include expelling Hamas leaders from the West Bank to Gaza, demolishing the homes of militants, tightening restrictions on Hamas prisoners and shutting social and charitable institutions linked to the group.

Israeli forces continued a massive hunt in the city of Hebron and neighboring villages in the southern West Bank, going house to house in some places and arresting suspects for interrogation. Army checkpoints ringed the area.

There was no sign of a breakthrough in efforts to find the seminary students, who went missing late Thursday night at a junction north of Hebron as they hitchhiked home from their schools in West Bank settlements. The three have been identified as Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gilad Shaer, 16. Fraenkel was born in Israel and also holds U.S. citizenship because his mother is a U.S. citizen.

The impasse, with no credible claim of responsibility for the disappearance by a Palestinian group, has raised the pressure on Netanyahu to respond.

In what’s become a daily event since the abduction, Netanyahu, flanked by the defense minister and army chief of staff, made a nationally televised statement, telling Israelis that a “complex operation” was underway and “we should be prepared for the possibility that it will take time.”

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the efforts to find the missing youths required “forbearance and patience,” and he vowed that an abduction “will not pass without Hamas paying a heavy price.”

In a rare telephone conversation with Abbas, Netanyahu demanded his help, even as the Palestinian and Israeli security forces were quietly cooperating in the search for the missing teenagers.

“I expect you to assist in returning the abducted youths and in apprehending the kidnappers,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “The Hamas kidnappers came from territory under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territory under Palestinian Authority control.”

Referring to the recent formation of a Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement, Netanyahu added: “The consequences of the partnership with Hamas must be understood: It is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and bad for the region.”

Abbas’ office published a condemnation of “the chain of events in the past week, beginning with the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths and ending with the series of Israeli violations,” including army raids on Palestinian homes, attacks by Jewish settlers and the killing Monday of 19-year-old Ahmad Sabarin at the Jelazoun refugee camp north of Ramallah.

Clashes at the camp were triggered by an Israeli arrest raid, and the army said troops opened fire with live ammunition at youths who dropped rocks and cinder blocks from rooftops.

Jewish settlers hurled stones at Palestinian motorists in several areas and set fire to farmland south of Bethlehem, Palestinians reported, apparently in response to the suspected kidnapping.

The escalating tensions in the West Bank have triggered sporadic rocket fire at Israel by militants in the Gaza Strip, drawing Israeli airstrikes in return. “If necessary, we will respond with much greater power,” Netanyahu warned.

The Israeli authorities blocked the shipment of goods from Israel to the Gaza Strip, shutting the only cargo crossing to everything except fuel.

News of the teens’ disappearance has riveted Israelis, with radio and television stations providing round-the clock coverage. In Jerusalem on Sunday, thousands joined a prayer vigil at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine.

In statements to the media on Monday, the youths’ parents thanked the Israeli public for its support and prayers.

“Our heart is torn, our heart is broken, but still the heart believes that you will come home safely, safe and sound,” said Iris Yifrah, addressing her son, Eyal. “We want to hug you already with our two hands, hug you tight, tight.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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