Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today that it could take time to locate three teenagers who are believed to have been abducted by Palestinian militants in the West Bank – even as Israeli forces stepped up a frantic search for the youths.
In a televised statement, Mr Netanyahu told the public that he remains focused on bringing the teens home safely. But for the first time since the crisis erupted last week, he warned the search could drag on.
“We are in the midst of a complex operation. We need to be prepared for the possibility that it will take time,” he said.
The three teenagers disappeared in the West Bank late on Thursday night while hitchhiking home near the Palestinian city of Hebron.
Israeli forces have closed roads, searched homes and rounded up dozens of Palestinians since then in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to find them.
On Monday, Israeli troops rounded up dozens more senior Hamas activists and killed a Palestinian in a clash with stone throwers.
Mr Netanyahu has accused Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, of being behind the abduction. Hamas has denied involvement.
He said Israel has arrested more than 100 Hamas activists and is “carrying out additional operations”.
The abductions came at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions were already running high over Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ formation of a unity government that is backed by 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 escalation.
Mr Netanyahu said he “expected” the international community to condemn the abductions and support Israel’s response.
It is not clear how far Mr Netanyahu will go in trying to dismantle the Hamas organisation, considering the risk this might further destabilise the region.
Despite Mr Netanyahu’s verbal attacks against Mr Abbas, he does not want to see a collapse of the pragmatic Palestinian leader’s self-rule government in the West Bank.
Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers were meeting on Monday. The government is 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.
In a statement today, Mr Abbas condemned both the kidnappings and the subsequent Israeli crackdown.
The statement says “the Palestinian leadership condemns the series of events ... beginning with the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens and ending with a series of Israeli violations”.