JERUSALEM – Israel’s prime minister on Sunday accused the Hamas militant group of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers who disappeared over the weekend, as the military arrested dozens of Palestinians and closed off West Bank roads in a frantic search for the youths.
The crisis escalated already heightened tensions between Israel and the new Palestinian government, which is headed by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas but backed by Hamas. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, has condemned the alliance and said it holds Abbas responsible for the teens’ safety.
“Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday’s kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. We know that for a fact,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “Hamas denials do not change this fact.”
Speaking in English, Netanyahu also tried to rally international opinion against the new Palestinian government. His calls for the international community to shun the government have been ignored so far.
“Instead of abiding by his international obligation to disarm Hamas, President Abbas has chosen to make Hamas his partner,” he added. “I believe that the dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all.”
Netanyahu provided no evidence to back his claims. Palestinian officials rejected Netanyahu’s contention that they are responsible.
Hamas, meanwhile, praised the apparent kidnapping but stopped short of accepting responsibility.
The three youths, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, disappeared Thursday night as they were heading home from a West Bank religious school.
Officials confirmed that one of the teens called a police emergency line around 10:25 p.m. and said, “We’ve been kidnapped.” They have not been heard from since then.
Frenkel also holds American citizenship.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the kidnapping but was more cautious about assigning blame.
“We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas’ involvement,” he said.
The overnight arrest raid was concentrated in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, in the area where the youths disappeared. Israel imposed a closure on the area, restricting traffic in hopes of preventing them from being smuggled out.