JERUSALEM: The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has accused the Islamic militant group Hamas of being behind the kidnapping of three teenagers – including a US citizen – who went missing nearly three days ago, as Israeli troops tightened their grip on the southern West Bank and rounded up scores of Palestinians.
While Israel extended its dragnet around Hebron yesterday, sealing off most entrances to the city, Israel and Hamas traded accusations. The Islamist group denied it was behind the kidnapping, despite some members welcoming it.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, condemned the kidnapping of the boys, issuing a statement calling for the release of Gil-ad Sha’er, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frankel and apparently backing Israeli claims of Hamas involvement.
Amid rapidly rising tensions in the West Bank, the Israeli military flooded the Hebron area with several thousand additional troops, deployed extra anti-rocket units in two southern cities and called up several hundred reservists. The kidnapping and the scale of the operation to recover the boys and root out those responsible, is one of the most serious security incidents in recent memory.
Amid the vast manhunt, Israeli soldiers have swamped Palestinian villages around Hebron and in effect closed off the city. Reinforcements of paratroopers were drafted in to makeshift camps circling the city, and observation balloons launched to help with the search.
In the village of Beit Einoun, Israeli soldiers searched through a barn yesterday, kicking through the hay in animal pens watched by the owner.
In another villager’s home, soldiers searched balconies and rooms, as a crowd observed from a distance.
“Why are they doing this?” said a man named Marwan. A youth in a Real Madrid football shirt, who declined to give his name, added: “Do they think the missing boys are in this neighbourhood?
“They are only here because a burned-out car [which it has been suggested was linked to the kidnapping] was found two kilometres away. “They are trying to put pressure on us and put pressure on the Palestinian government.”
The search has been accompanied by widespread arrests – about 80 Palestinians were seized yesterday.