OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli soldiers arrested over 40 Palestinians in an overnight raid Tuesday, while the government imposed new punishments on Hamas prisoners as the search continues for three missing teens who Israel believes Hamas operatives abducted in the West Bank.
Tuesday’s arrests brought the total number of Palestinians detained since the teens disappeared Thursday to over 200, the biggest West Bank crackdown on the group in almost a decade. Israel has vowed to exact a heavy price from Hamas, saying the aim of the military operation goes beyond searching for the boys.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Security Cabinet, a group of senior government ministers, to discuss the crisis. During the three-hour meeting, the ministers agreed to worsen the conditions for Hamas prisoners that Israel is holding, said an official familiar with the deliberations.
He would not elaborate, saying only that the operation to return the missing teens “continues and will be intensified.”
The Jewish state accuses Hamas of kidnapping the three youths after they left their religious school in a Jewish settlement in the occupied territory Thursday. While neither claiming nor denying responsibility, Hamas has commented that abductions were a justified response to the plight of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
The Israeli army has carried out house-to-house searches, roundups of suspects and interrogations in Hebron, a Hamas stronghold, and then in other parts of the West Bank, in a mobilization on a scale not seen in years.
“We are turning Hamas membership into a ticket to hell,” Naftali Bennett, a far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, told Israeli Army Radio Tuesday.
The Palestinian Information Ministry accused Israel of inflicting collective punishment with its West Bank dragnet – a charge echoed by international human rights groups.
“An entire population is being held hostage to the whims of the Israeli occupation,” the Palestinian ministry said.
Israel has said it does not know if Gil-Ad Shaer and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, are alive or what their captors’ demands might be.
An Israeli official said ministers had also debated a proposal to deport West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza.
Israel officials acknowledged the operation was twofold – recovering the missing teenagers and weakening Hamas.
“Regardless of the party which stood behind the [kidnapping] operation, our people have the right to defend themselves and to stand in solidarity with their prisoners,” Hamas said in a statement Tuesday.
Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned both the kidnappings and the Israeli dragnet.
Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser, said the abductions provided an opportunity to target Hamas in operations that could undermine a new Palestinian unity government formed after Abbas reconciled with his Islamist rivals in April following years of feuding.
Infuriated by the surprise intra-Palestinian alliance, Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Abbas.
“The fragile links between the [Abbas-led Palestinian] Authority and Hamas could become more of a crack,” Eiland told Israel Radio, a day after the Islamists condemned as a “knife in the back” PA efforts to help the Israelis locate the teenagers.
Mirroring scenes played out elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers filed through a street of shuttered homes and shops in the town of Jenin Tuesday, lobbing stun grenades and firing rubber bullets at Palestinians who threw rocks at them.
Israeli and Palestinian security sources said soldiers and police had wounded five Palestinians in Jenin and in confrontations near the cities of Ramallah and Nablus.
Israel showed photographs of what it said were hundreds of weapons, including guns, seized at some of the detainees’ homes.