RAMALLAH: Israeli forces detained more than 40 Hamas militants Tuesday, the military said, in a West Bank crackdown on the Islamist group that is being conducted in tandem with a search for three missing teenagers.
Israel blames Hamas for the abduction of the Jewish seminary students, who went missing last Thursday. The Islamist movement, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, has neither claimed nor denied responsibility for the kidnapping.
Since the disappearance of Gil-Ad Shaer and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, Israeli raids have spread from house-to-house searches though darkened homes in Hebron, a Hamas stronghold, to other parts of the occupied West Bank.
"We are turning Hamas membership into a ticket to hell," Naftali Bennett, a far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, told army radio Tuesday.
The Palestinian Information Ministry accused Israel of inflicting collective punishment on Palestinians in the territory. "An entire population is being held hostage to the whims of the Israeli occupation," it said.
The Israeli military said it had detained 41 Hamas militants in overnight raids, raising to more than 200 the number arrested since Friday. Israel officials acknowledged the operation was two-fold - finding the missing teenagers and weakening Hamas.
Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who signed a unity government deal with Hamas in April, has condemned both the kidnapping and the Israeli raids.
Mirroring scenes played out in other Palestinian communities in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers filed through a street of shuttered homes and shops in the town of Jenin Tuesday, throwing stun grenades and firing rubber bullets at Palestinian stone-throwers who confronted them.
Israeli and Palestinian security sources said soldiers and police had wounded five Palestinians in Jenin and in clashes near the towns of Ramallah and Nablus.
In Gaza, Israel bombed four militant targets early Tuesday in response to rocket fire at southern Israel. There were no reported casualties in these incidents.
Netanyahu's security cabinet was scheduled to reconvene Tuesday to weigh further measures against Hamas.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they could include deporting West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza.
Netanyahu said Monday that the effort to retrieve the three teenagers, who disappeared while hitchhiking in the West Bank, was complicated and that Israelis "must be prepared for the possibility it could take time".
Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general, said the lack of progress in finding the teens, six days after they disappeared, signaled that the chances of finding them were dwindling.
But Eiland said the abductions had provided an opportunity to target Hamas in operations that could sabotage the new Palestinian unity government, which Israel shuns and whose formation it cited in freezing peace talks with Abbas in April.
"The fragile links between the (Abbas-led Palestinian) Authority and Hamas could become more of a crack," Eiland said on Israel Radio, a day after the Islamist group condemned as a "knife in the back" PA security cooperation with Israel.