Palestinian president pledges to help Israel find missing teens


McClatchy Foreign Staff

In a blistering attack on those suspected of seizing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that they want “to destroy us,” and he pledged continued cooperation with Israeli security forces in the effort to track them down.

The blunt remarks at a meeting of foreign ministers from Arab and other Muslim nations in Saudi Arabia were Abbas’ first comments on the suspected abduction, and they reflected a readiness to aggressively confront the militants thought to have kidnapped the teens.

Though there’s been no credible claim of responsibility, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged that members of the militant Islamist group Hamas kidnapped the teens, and he’s dispatched hundreds of troops to the West Bank in a sweeping crackdown on the group.

In an emergency call to the Israeli police on the night of the incident, one of the teenagers whispered that he was being kidnapped, but the call, which was unclear and abruptly cut off, was dismissed as a prank after a return call went unanswered, law enforcement officials have confirmed. On Wednesday a recording of the conversation was made available to the families of the youths, and the Israeli police chief appointed a team to investigate the response.

Accused by Hamas of collaborating with the Israelis, Abbas defiantly defended the cooperation of his forces in the search for the missing youths. The three seminary students, who studied in West Bank settlements, disappeared Thursday night as they hitchhiked home, setting off a massive search by Israeli security forces.

“We are coordinating with them in order to find these youngsters, because in the end they are human beings, and we want to protect human lives,” Abbas told foreign ministers at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His remarks were broadcast live on Palestinian television.

Abbas said U.S. officials had notified the Palestinian Authority that one of the teenagers was an American citizen. “We told them: ‘American or Israeli, as far as we’re concerned he is a human being and we must search for this person and return him to his family,’ ” he said. “We will search until we find him, and then whoever carried out this action.”

Naftali Fraenkel, 16, one of the missing teenagers, has dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship. The other two have been identified as Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19.

“The truth is that whoever carried out this action wants to destroy us,” Abbas said. “That is why we will speak to him differently and take a different position toward him, whoever it is . . . because we cannot tolerate such acts.”

“The government believes in security coordination between us and Israel,” Abbas added. “Of course, there are those who rebuke and accuse us regarding the security cooperation, but it is in our interest . . . to have security coordination with the Israelis in order to defend ourselves, in order to protect our people: We do not want to go back to the chaos and destruction of the second (Palestinian) uprising. We will not go back to an uprising that will destroy us.”

Hamas, which has welcomed the suspected abduction and accused Abbas of betrayal, denounced his remarks. Salah al Bardawil, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said Abbas’ statements were “similar to the statements of the Israeli army spokesman.”

The rising tension between Hamas and Abbas, weeks after his Fatah movement reached a reconciliation accord with the Islamist group, might threaten a newly formed Palestinian unity government backed by both factions.

Abbas is also facing popular support for the apparent kidnapping, widely seen by Palestinians as an acceptable means to compel Israel to release prisoners from its jails. In photos posted on social media, smiling Palestinians, including children, hold up three fingers, celebrating the suspected seizure of the three young Israelis.

Netanyahu’s office gave Abbas’ remarks a frosty reception, saying his words “will be tested by the efforts exerted by the Palestinian Authority to return the kidnapped youths home safely.”

“The real test will be canceling the agreement with Hamas,” the prime minister’s office added.

The army said Wednesday that it had arrested another 65 Palestinians in what have become nightly raids, including 53 who’d been released in a 2011 exchange in which more 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were freed in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu said “dozens of Hamas terrorists” had been “returned to jail.” More than 250 Palestinians, most of them Hamas activists and political leaders, have been arrested so far in the sweeps, which have also targeted charities and social institutions linked to the group, the army said.

“We are in the midst of an extensive operation,” Netanyahu said. “We are fighting terrorism with force, and Hamas will continue to pay a heavy price.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Eyal Yifrah, one of the missing teenagers.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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