JERUSALEM – Israel warned Monday it would exact a heavy price from Hamas, as a massive search for three missing Jewish seminary students turned into the widest crackdown on the Islamic militant group in the West Bank in almost a decade.
Israel has blamed Hamas for the apparent abductions, without providing proof, and has arrested more than 150 Palestinians since the three teens disappeared in the West Bank late Thursday.
Most of those rounded up were from Hamas, including activists and political leaders, among them 10 members of the non-functioning Palestinian parliament. Israel’s Security Cabinet discussed further steps Monday, reportedly including the possible deportation of Hamas leaders from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is in control.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Hamas has begun “paying a heavy price, both in terms of arrests and assets,” suggesting the aim is to try to dismantle the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. It’s not clear how far Israel will go, though, considering the risk of a conflagration in the West Bank after several years of relative calm.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the abductions to try to discredit Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the unity government Abbas formed with Hamas backing earlier this month.
Netanyahu claimed Abbas is ultimately responsible for the fate of the teens and alleged the Palestinian leader’s new alliance with the Islamic militants created an atmosphere that encouraged the apparent kidnapping. Abbas and Netanyahu spoke by phone Monday, a rare contact between the two. Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli prime minister asked Abbas for help with the search.
The Israeli search for the missing students – two 16-year-olds and a 19-year-old – was concentrated in and around Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Troops sealed the area, blocking access roads, and conducted house-to-house searches.