Gershon Baskin isn’t convinced Hamas operatives are behind the kidnapping.
A sweeping overnight manhunt by Israeli security forces in the West Bank netted the arrest Sunday of at least 80 Palestinians — including members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — in the disappearance of three Israeli teenagers.
The crisis is unleashing a torrent of accusations across the Israeli political spectrum on the heels of the formation of a Palestinian unity government two weeks ago headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that includes representatives from rival Hamas and Fatah factions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday again accused Hamas in the apparent abduction of the boys, one a dual American-Israeli citizen.
“Today I can say what I refrained from saying yesterday ahead of the wave of arrests that captured Hamas operatives in Judea and Samaria. Hamas men carried out the kidnapping. This is the same Hamas with which Abbas entered a unity government. This has grave consequences,” Netanyahu said. “At this point our focus is on returning the abductees home.”
The overnight raid was centered in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, near where the boys went missing on their way home from high school in a Jewish settlement on Thursday.
Palestinian officials condemned the crackdown and rejected Netanyahu’s contention that they are responsible. Hamas, meanwhile, praised the apparent kidnapping but stopped short of accepting responsibility.
Saying the Israeli government will “extract a heavy price” from the Palestinian leadership, Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon promised the government is doing everything it can to bring the boys home.
“The State of Israel will strike with full force against Hamas and the terrorist criminals behind this act,” Danon said in a statement. “A red line has been crossed and President Abbas’ Hamas-backed Palestinian Authority government now bears full responsibility for the well-being of the three Israeli teenagers.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will not negotiate with a Palestinian government where Hamas is a partner. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Israelis.
The Israeli military identified the three teens, who may have been hitchhiking, as Naftali Frenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. Frenkel is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen.
The teens’ whereabouts remain unknown, according to security officials. A mass prayer service is scheduled at the Western Wall for later Sunday.
Fighting back tears, Rachel Frenkel, an Orthodox Jew and mother of Naftali Frenkel, spoke at a news conference Sunday outside her home in Nof Ayalon in central Israel, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“Israel will bring you back,” she said. “We love you and will celebrate your return!”
The teens’ disappearance has hit a raw nerve in Israel, where parents routinely allow teenagers to commute via public transportation. Though discouraged, many hitchhike on occasion, especially to and from Jewish settlements.
Those on the political right say the abduction is proof Israel cannot trust the new Palestinian government, and that demands for Israel to cede to the Palestinians the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War, is tantamount to national suicide.
“Kidnapping children will not be an event that passes quietly and it will be clear to all groups involved, the terrorists those that sent them and those that support them, that such operations do not pay,” Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett said during a visit to Frenkel’s family. “We will respond with an iron fist to terror. This is the time for the entire nation of Israel to increase our prayers and to stay unified, determined and strong. We will not be broken.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s left wing — which maintains Jewish settlements and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are the root cause of what Palestinians call “national resistance” — say Netanyahu shares much of the blame for the episode.
“The occupation is ultimately responsible,” said Larry Derfner, a left-wing blogger for +972 Magazine, adding nothing could justify the kidnapping. “But the Palestinians are living under a military dictatorship and people will fight back.”
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who negotiated the release of Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006, said he isn’t convinced Hamas operatives are behind the kidnapping.
Hamas was at its “weakest point” when it agreed to join a unity government with Fatah, he said, and it “would not risk the alliance” by kidnapping Israeli teenagers.
Baskin said he believes the teens are still in the West Bank, being hidden in a cave or another location under the radar of the Israeli security. He suspects that either a Salafi group connected to Hizb al Tahrir, an organization that aims to create an Islamic state, or a smaller unknown group carried out the action.
“Eventually they will have to move, they will need supplies,” he said. “They will be discovered.”