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Israel tightens West Bank grip as Abbas blasts kidnappers

June 18, 2014 6:51 P.M. (Updated: June 25, 2014 4:14 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel tightened its grip on the West Bank on Wednesday, arresting another 65 people, as President Mahmoud Abbas lashed out at those behind the disappearance of three Israeli teenagers.

As the hunt for the youths entered its sixth day, there was no let-up in Israel's drive to deal a crushing blow to the West Bank infrastructure of Hamas, which it has blamed for the kidnapping.

But as troops pressed their biggest arrest operation in years, imposing a tight lock-down on huge swathes of the West Bank, Abbas blasted those behind the teens' disappearance, saying they were trying to "destroy" the Palestinian people.

And he defended the security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, sparking a furious denunciation by Hamas.

"Those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us. We will hold them accountable," Abbas told a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia.

"It is in our interest to have security coordination with Israel, because that would help protect us," he said.

"We will never have another intifada (Palestinian uprising) -- that would destroy us."

Hamas denounced his remarks as "harmful" to a fledgling reconciliation deal between it and the Palestinian leadership, which saw an interim government of technocrats replace rival administrations in the West Bank and Gaza earlier this month.

The exchange was the first public sign of a major dispute between the sides since the unity deal was signed in April, ending years of bitter and sometimes bloody rivalry.

Pundits have said Israel is seeking to use the massive military operation in the West Bank to bring about the collapse of the newly formed unity government, established with the backing of its Islamist foe.

'Unjustified, harmful'

"President Abbas' statements on security coordination with Israel are unjustified, harmful to Palestinian reconciliation," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

The Palestinian leader's remarks in Jeddah were also "a psychological blow to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners suffering a slow death in the occupation's jails," he said, referring to around 5,000 detainees being held by Israel.

Israel will be held responsible for the "consequences" of their actions, Abu Zuhri told Ma'an, warning Israel against plans to expel Hamas leaders from the West Bank.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has directly accused Hamas militants of being behind the kidnapping, the movement has dismissed his claims as "stupid."

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the teens' disappearance.

Ramadan disruptions likely

Overnight, Israeli troops arrested another 65 Palestinians, among them 51 who had been released as part of the Shalit deal, in a move hailed by Netanyahu as sending "an important message."

Since the searches began early Friday, troops have arrested 240 Palestinians, searched more than 800 locations and raided 10 Hamas-run institutions, the army said.

But despite days of intensive military operations, there appeared to be no end in sight, with troops focusing on the southern city of Hebron and the surrounding area.

"They kicked the door in at 7:30 a.m this morning and told us to leave ... If our relatives didn't live here, we'd have ended up on the street," said Umm Amr, a mother of four who lives in Taffuh village.

"I don't think they'll find the missing Israelis in the bathroom or the washing machine," snapped another woman sarcastically after soldiers also forced their way into her home.

"A lot of time will pass until the situation in the West Bank returns to what it was, if it ever does," an Israeli military official told the Hebrew-language daily Maariv.

Other officials said "Operation Brother's Keeper" was likely to run into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins at the end of June.

"My feeling is their Ramadan is going to be disrupted," a senior military official told Haaretz, another Israeli newspaper, acknowledging that life in the West Bank was becoming increasingly difficult for the Palestinian population.

Military officials quoted by the paper said the normal easing of security measures during the fasting month were "liable to be suspended."

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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