Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday condemned, for the first time, the kidnapping last week of three Israeli teenagers, who Israel says were abducted by members of the Islamist militant movement Hamas.
In a written statement in Arabic, Abbas also denounced the subsequent Israeli response to the kidnappings, a massive military sweep in the West Bank in which one Palestinian has been killed and hundreds of Hamas officials and others have been arrested.
According to Palestinian officials, a 20-year-old Palestinian was killed and another was wounded during clashes with Israeli forces early Monday as they conducted house-to-house searches in al-Jilazoun refugee camp outside Ramallah, Reuters news agency reported.
“The Palestinian presidency condemns the series of events that happened last week, beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli youths,” Abbas’sstatement said. “The presidency reaffirms the importance of neither side resorting to violence.”
For the first time in many months, Abbas also spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders discussed the growing crisis surrounding the abduction, which Israel said was carried out by members of Hamas, which recently reached an agreement with Abbas to form a Palestinian unity government.
“I expect you to assist in returning the abducted youths and in apprehending the kidnappers,” Netanyahu told Abbas during the conversation, according to the prime minister’s office. “The Hamas kidnappers came from territory under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territory under Palestinian Authority control.”
Security forces belonging to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority have been assisting the Israeli military in the search for the kidnapped teens.
During military raids in and around the West Bank city of Hebron, near where the three teens were last seen, Israel detained more than 40 suspects overnight Sunday.
Among those arrested were several senior Hamas leaders, including the Hamas speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Aziz Duweik. Since the abduction of the three teenagers last Thursday night, the Israeli army has detained some 150 suspects.
Anas Duweik, the son of the arrested parliamentarian, said at home in Hebron: “My father has a clear political role. He meets with the media every day. He is not involved in anything underground.”
He said his father, who is 67, had nothing to do with any abductions. “The Israelis want to show they are doing something,” so they have arrested Hamas leaders, the younger Duweik said.
An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said the mass arrests of Palestinians and Hamas leaders “are focused on enabling operational capabilities, enhancing intelligence and influencing those that participated, are involved or have knowledge of the whereabouts of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frankel and Eyal Yifrah.” Those are the three religious school students, aged 16 to 19, who went missing Thursday night as they hitchhiked home. One of the youths managed to make a cellphone call to a police emergency line and say, “We’ve been kidnapped.
Ittael Frankel, aunt of missing teen Naftali Frankel, who is a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen, said the family was going through a difficult time but was still optimistic that he would return home soon.
Israel has vowed that it would not only punish the kidnappers and Hamas but would also hold the Palestinian Authority and Abbas responsible for the abductions.
“We will respond with an iron fist to terror,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economics minister and the third most powerful member of Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were already at a low point, after the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April and the creation this month of the unity government backed by Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement. Israel and most of the West consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
The kidnappings have riveted Israeli society and dominated the news cycle here. Tens of thousands gathered at Jerusalem’s Western Wall to pray for the teens’ safe return. Israel has thrown an entire paratrooper brigade into the search, and the West Bank city of Hebron — near where the teens were last seen — has been cordoned with checkpoints as Israeli security forces carry out house searches.
“Our government will extract a heavy price from the Palestinian leadership,” Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said Sunday. “We are not ruling out any options when it comes to possible actions against the PA government in both Gaza and Ramallah.”
Palestinian officials said they have been put in an impossible position. Ehab Bessaiso, a spokesman for the unity government, said the Palestinian Authority cannot be held responsible for abductions in Area C of the West Bank, on the outskirts of Hebron, near the Jewish settlement communities of Gush Etzion, where the Israeli military has complete security control and where Palestinian police are forbidden.
Netanyahu was dismissive of such assertions.
“When an attack takes place in Tel Aviv or in London or in New York . . .the question is not where the attack takes place, the question is where it originated,” Netanyahu said. “The kidnappers in this case set out from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and the PA cannot absolve itself of its responsibility.”
But a senior Israeli military intelligence officer, who gave a briefing to foreign reporters on the condition of anonymity, said security forces under the Palestinian Authority have been working closely with their Israeli counterparts — even now — to foil attacks against Israelis.
The officer would not divulge whether the Israelis believe that the “members of Hamas” thought to be behind the abduction were part of a relatively independent local cell or were getting instructions and support from commanders in the Hamas military wing.
The officer did say that independent local cells have previously carried out shootings and grenade attacks, while Hamas operatives answering to an “institutional” command structure have handled more complex actions such as suicide bombings and kidnappings.
Netanyahu said the abductions are proof that the reconciliation government that ended the seven-year feud between Hamas and Fatah poses a direct threat to Israeli civilians.
“You remember that Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact,” Netanyahu said.
Diplomats from the United States and the European Union have said they will work with the unity government because no Hamas members serve as ministers.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Sunday appeared ready to blame Hamas for the abductions. “We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas involvement,” Kerry said. “As we gather this information, we reiterate our position that Hamas is a terrorist organization known for its attacks on innocent civilians and which has used kidnapping in the past.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the accusations against the Islamist movement “stupid” and said they were “designed to break Hamas” and reflect a “state of confusion” among Israeli security forces.
Barak Ben-Zur, a former head of research for Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, said, “The Israeli security establishment is convinced that Hamas is behind the kidnapping,” even if it was the work of a local cell.
Ben-Zur said the rocky hills and deep valleys around Hebron favor the kidnappers. “It is very easy to hide in those places, very easy to disappear,” he said.
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