x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Palestinian killed as Israel intensifies hunt for kidnappers

With senior Israeli officials now calling for a crackdown on Hamas and perhaps even the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by Mr Abbas, there is growing concern of a major Israeli operation.

Palestinians carry the body of Ahmad Sabbarin from Jalazoun refugee camp during his funeral in the West Bank near Ramallah on16 June 2014. Sabbarin was killed by Israeli soldiers in the refugee camp during a confrontation with protesters amid large-scale arrests of Palestinians asIsrael searched for three abducted teenagers. EPA/ATEF SAFADI
Palestinians carry the body of Ahmad Sabbarin from Jalazoun refugee camp during his funeral in the West Bank near Ramallah on16 June 2014. Sabbarin was killed by Israeli soldiers in the refugee camp during a confrontation with protesters amid large-scale arrests of Palestinians asIsrael searched for three abducted teenagers. EPA/ATEF SAFADI

JERUSALEM // Israeli troops on Monday rounded up dozens more senior Hamas members and killed a Palestinian in a clash with stone throwers as a search for three Israeli teenagers threatened to escalate into further violence.

The West Bank abductions came at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions were already running high after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formed a unity government with Hamas.

With senior Israeli officials now calling for a crackdown on Hamas and perhaps even the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by Mr Abbas, there is growing concern of a major Israeli operation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged that Hamas carried out the kidnappings but provided no evidence. He has also held Mr Abbas responsible for the fate of the teens and claimed the unity government created the atmosphere for the kidnappings.

Despite Mr Netanyahu’s verbal attacks against Mr Abbas, he does not want to see a collapse of the Palestinian leader’s self-rule government in the West Bank.

Mr Abbas condemned the kidnappings but also the Israeli actions that followed, including the widespread arrests and the killing of a 20-year-old Palestinian by Israeli army fire early on Monday, during a confrontation between stone throwers and soldiers.

Mr Netanyahu called Mr Abbas on Monday, a fairly rare contact between the two leaders, requesting help with efforts to rescue the abducted teens and arrest the kidnappers.

“The Hamas kidnappers came from territory under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territory under Palestinian Authority control,” Mr Netanyahu told Mr Abbas.

Palestinian officials have rejected Mr Netanyahu’s contention that the Palestinian self-rule government is ultimately responsible for the abductions, saying Israel is in overall control of the West Bank. The junction where the teens were last seen is under Israeli control and is commonly used by soldiers and Jewish settlers.

Senior Israeli cabinet ministers were meeting on Monday with the government reportedly weighing a series of measures, including the deportation of Hamas leaders from the West Bank to Gaza, where Hamas remains the de facto power despite the unity deal.

The three Jewish seminary students went missing late on Thursday while hitchhiking at a West Bank bus stop near the Palestinian city of Hebron. They were on their way home, to two towns inside Israel, and the third to a West Bank settlement.

Large numbers of Israeli troops carried out a massive search since then, going house to house in some areas.

Israeli forces have arrested more than 150 Palestinians, most of them from Hamas, over the past four days. Among those detained were 10 Hamas legislators – or one-third of the Hamas representatives from the West Bank in the long-defunct Palestinian parliament. The most senior among those detained on Monday was the parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Dweik.

Mr Abbas has assured the US and Europe that despite his agreement with Hamas, his forces in the West Bank would not halt their security coordination with Israeli troops. The targets of such coordination have been militants, including from Hamas.

Despite the heated rhetoric of recent days, Palestinian security chiefs have worked with Israel to try to locate the missing teens, Palestinian officials have said.

Mr Abbas said he does not know who is behind the kidnappings, a PLO official said. He quoted Mr Abbas as saying that Hamas involvement would be unacceptable and that the group has no right to destabilise the West Bank while observing a truce on the Israel-Gaza border.

Mr Netanyahu has used the abductions to try to discredit the unity government, which is made up of technocrats loyal to Mr Abbas and won initial support from Europe and the US.

Dozens of Palestinians held by Israel are on an open-ended hunger strike to try to force Israel to end the practice of “administrative detentions” without charges or trial.

Hamas has praised the kidnappings, but has stopped short of claiming responsibility.

Several claims of responsibility have emerged in recent days, including one by a purported Al Qaeda offshoot.

*Associated Press