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Israel aims to break Hamas in hunt for missing youths

June 17, 2014 3:05 P.M. (Updated: June 18, 2014 10:53 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel stepped up efforts to clampdown on Hamas in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday as the hunt for three Israeli teenagers believed to be kidnapped entered its fifth day.

Thousands of Israel troops engaged in the search for the youths turned their attention during the night to Nablus and surrounding area, arresting 41 Palestinians, the army said.

So far, Israel has arrested around 200 Palestinians, most of them Hamas members, as it conducts a vast search operation for the students, two of them minors and one of whom lives in an illegal West Bank settlement.

Hebron has been on lock-down since the disappearances, with multiple checkpoints established around the city severely restricting the movement of thousands of Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused militants from the Islamist movement of kidnapping the youths last week, although Hamas dismissed the accusations as "stupid."

"We are here in the midst of a complex operation. We need to be prepared for the possibility that it may take time. This is a serious event and there will be serious consequences," Netanyahu said on Monday evening.

Israel has said it holds President Mahmoud Abbas responsible for the safe return of the three, with Netanyahu phoning him to demand his help in the search efforts in what was their first direct political contact since 2012.

So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility.

Adnan Dmeiri, spokesman for the Palestinian security services, said Friday that the PA was not responsible for the safety of settlers and noted that the teenagers disappeared from an area of the occupied West Bank under Israeli security control.

Smashing Hamas

At a meeting of the Israeli security cabinet on Monday, ministers decided to expand moves against Hamas in order to smash its political and social infrastructure in the West Bank, officials said.

"As long as our boys remain abducted, Hamas will feel pursued, paralyzed and threatened," said Lieutenant Peter Lerner, the military's official spokesman.

"We are committed to resolving the kidnapping and debilitating Hamas terrorist capacities, its infrastructure and its recruiting institutions," he said in a statement.

A series of punitive steps aimed at decapitating Hamas in the West Bank were discussed on Monday by ministers, who examined the possibility of banishing its senior members to Gaza and demolishing their homes in the West Bank, Israeli media reports said.

Ministers were reportedly meeting again on Tuesday.

"Israel has decided to perform a root canal to uproot everything green in the West Bank," said army radio, referring to the color representing Hamas.

Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who was at the meeting, told the radio Israel had decided to "dramatically" change its approach to the Islamist movement.

"We will bring about a situation in which Hamas people will become a nuisance for the Palestinian population, and that their presence in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) will cause harm everywhere," he said.

Crackdown aims to thwart Palestinian reconciliation

Pundits said Israel was also seeking to bring about the collapse of a newly-formed Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas, the first fruits of a reconciliation deal between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza which has been furiously denounced by the Netanyahu government.

"The purpose of the Israeli actions ... is to drive a wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and stop the reconciliation process that began some two months ago," wrote Amos Harel in Haaretz newspaper.

By crushing Hamas' infrastructure, it would weaken the movement ahead of Palestinian elections which under the unity deal are supposed to take place before the end of the year, Fishman, writing in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot, said.

"Removing the political leadership from the West Bank is supposed to weaken Hamas in advance of the Palestinian presidential elections," he said.

But as the manhunt entered its fifth day, commentators voiced concern about growing reports of clashes around the West Bank, sparking fears that an already tense situation could rapidly escalate.

On Monday, a 19-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by troops during clashes in Jalazun camp north of Ramallah. And during the night, troops shot and seriously wounded a Palestinian who was trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement in the same area, military radio said.

In Gaza, the Israeli air force carried out a fourth straight night of air strikes after militants fired more rockets over the border.

Last Thursday, one Palestinian was killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Two days later, seven-year-old Ali Abd al-Latif al-Awour died from wounds sustained in an Israeli airstrike last Wednesday.

Israel has killed over 60 Palestinians since last July and injured more than a thousand in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report
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