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Israel PM praises Abbas remarks but slams unity govt

June 25, 2014 9:41 P.M. (Updated: June 27, 2014 9:47 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday for condemning the alleged kidnapping of three teenagers, but criticized the Gaza-West Bank government the PLO agreed upon with Hamas.

Netanyahu spoke as Israel began to wind down a huge crackdown on the Islamist movement, having arrested hundreds in an operation to find the youngsters who went missing in the southern West Bank nearly two weeks ago.

Israel was coming under increasing international pressure to use restraint in its manhunt, after Israeli raids across the West Bank killed four Palestinians.

"I appreciate what president Abbas said a few days ago in Saudi Arabia, rejecting the kidnapping," Netanyahu told his Romanian counterpart Victor Ponta at a meeting in Jerusalem.

"I think these were important words," he said.

Abbas condemned the alleged kidnapping, telling a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that "those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us."

"We will hold them accountable," he said, but did not blame Hamas.

US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Abbas for his "courageous stand in support of efforts to find the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers" in telephone talks, a senior State Department official said.

Kerry also "emphasized the need for restraint from all sides during this difficult time," the official added.

Blame game

Israel immediately accused its Islamist foe of kidnapping the youngsters, who went missing on June 12 at a hitchhiking spot near the city of Hebron.

Hamas has denied that it kidnapped the teens, and Israel has provided no evidence for its involvement.

Israel has used that as a pretext to uproot the Islamist movement's West Bank network, arresting 354 Palestinians, 269 of them Hamas members, according to the army.

But the Palestinian Prisoners' Society puts the number of detained at over 500.

Israeli forces have also killed five Palestinians and injured dozens throughout their West Bank operation, largely considered the most extensive deployment since the Second Intifada.

Abbas, meanwhile, has pledged to continue security coordination with Israel, which he said was in Palestinians' "best interest" since it would "help protect us."

Israel seized on the opportunity presented by the operation to try to rupture a reconciliation agreement between Abbas and Hamas, under which the two sides formed a merged administration for the West Bank and Gaza earlier this month for the first time in seven years.

In remarks aired Tuesday, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal told Al-Jazeera television that "we do not have information about what happened," but stressed his support for "every resistance attack against the Israeli occupation."

'No alliance with kidnappers'

Afterwards, Netanyahu reiterated that if "Abbas really means what he said about the kidnapping, and if he is truly committed to peace and to fighting terrorism, then logic and common sense mandate that he break his pact with Hamas."

"There can be no alliance with the kidnappers of children," he said.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel was beginning to wind down its arrest operation, which has cost the lives of four Palestinians and sparked public anger in the West Bank.

"The operation by the Israeli army against Hamas has been mostly completed," he told public radio, adding that the number of wanted Palestinians still at large had greatly diminished as "dozens and dozens" were now in custody.

Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair said Tuesday he was "deeply troubled by the ongoing events" and Palestinian deaths.

"Israel must act with restraint when operating in populated Palestinian areas –- including Gaza –- and ensure that civilians are not harmed," he said in a statement, calling for a limit on restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the alleged kidnappings, but implored Israel to "respect international law... and use proportional force" in its arrests.

Palestinian lawyer Hiba Masalha slammed Israel's ultimatum against kidnapping as hypocritical on Tuesday, noting that the number of Palestinian children in Israeli jails had surpassed 250 in the wake of the arrest campaign.

"Detaining Palestinian children from their houses in the middle of the night without informing their parents and families of the reasons for their detention is kidnapping," Masalha said.

Tensions have risen among Palestinians over the death toll from the Israeli operation, particularly as it comes ahead of next week's start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A former top army commander, Israel Ziv, said it was in Israel's interest to focus the operation on intelligence gathering rather than physical intimidation.

"There are casualties, and definitely we have to reconsider when is the right timing to change this mode of operation and to move towards what is more effective, which is ... intelligence or psychological warfare," he said.

Israeli forces had withdrawn from the center of Hebron, where they had been concentrating their operation, but were still blocking off roads around the city and were stationed in large numbers a short distance outside, security sources told AFP.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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