JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the kidnappers of three Israeli teenagers missing since Thursday in the West Bank were members of the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Netanyahu’s remarks followed an Israeli security sweep overnight in which about 80 Palestinians were arrested across the West Bank, the army said.
Most of those detained were Hamas members, including prominent political figures, legislators and former cabinet ministers affiliated with the group, Palestinians reported.
“Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday’s kidnapping,” Netanyahu said. “We know that for a fact.”
In later remarks, Netanyahu seemed to hint at possible retaliation, saying: “This event will have consequences, and we are already discussing them.”
U.S. officials were less certain in their pronouncements, but also aimed suspicion at Hamas.
“We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas’ involvement,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “As we gather this information, we reiterate our position that Hamas is a terrorist organization known for its attacks on innocent civilians and which has used kidnapping in the past.”
Kerry said the United States had encouraged “full cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security services” and that that cooperation was “ongoing.”
One of the missing teens, Naftali Frenkel, 16, a yeshiva student at the settlement of Kfar Etzion, holds U.S. citizenship. The other teens have been identified as Eyal Yifrach, 19, a student at a yeshiva in the Jewish settlement enclave in Hebron, and Gilad Shaer, 16, who attends classes at the same school as Frenkel.
Under a reconciliation deal reached by Hamas and the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, an interim government backed by both factions was formed earlier this month. Israel suspended peace talks with the Palestinians after the reconciliation accord was reached, and says it will not negotiate with the Hamas-backed government.
Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Netanyahu, who has seized on the kidnapping to criticize Abbas’s alliance with Hamas, did not disclose what evidence backs his assertion that that the kidnappers belonged to the group. Neither did he clarify whether the kidnappers are thought to have acted on their own, or with the organizational support of more senior Hamas operatives.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that the kidnappers were members of “an arm of Hamas” in the West Bank. Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip declined to comment on the episode or take responsibility for it, suggesting that it might have been initiated independently in the West Bank.
A leaflet issued Friday carried a claim of responsibility by a local branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – the radical Islamic group that has made dramatic gains in fighting in Iraq in recent days. The group is not known to be active in the West Bank, however, and the statement has not been authenticated.
Beefed up Israeli troops continued house to house searches for the teenagers, who attend a religious school and were hitchhiking home at a road junction near a cluster of Jewish settlements north of the city of Hebron.
Checkpoints have been set up outside the city and on approaches to neighboring villages and towns, and travel out of the area has been blocked, a military spokeswoman said.
With no signs that the security forces were any closer to finding the missing youths, questions swirled in Israel about the circumstances of the kidnapping.
Although police received an emergency call from one of the teenagers at the time of the incident, in which he whispered that he had been kidnapped, it was deemed a false alarm, Israel Radio reported. Only after the father of one of the youths filed a police report hours later that his son was missing was the information passed to the army and security services, the radio report said.
A police spokesman confirmed that an emergency phone call was received and abruptly cut off, but he gave no further details.
The practice of hitchhiking on West Bank roads used by both Israeli and Palestinian motorists also has come under scrutiny. Despite the risks and warnings by security officials of planned kidnappings, hitchhiking is a common mode of getting around among young Jewish settlers and religious studies students in the West Bank.
“The directive is very clear,” Steinitz said, “don’t hitch rides.”
In a statement to foreign journalists, Netanyahu reiterated his charge that Abbas was responsible for the abduction of the teenagers because, he said, the kidnappers came from areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian officials, who have noted that the youths disappeared in a West Bank area under Israeli control, dismissed Netanyahu’s remarks.
“Now he wants to make us responsible for something for which we bear absolutely no responsibility,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top aide to Abbas, said in a radio interview. “The occupation has to bear responsibility for everything that happens on our land, be it actions, violations or crimes.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon acknowledged on Saturday that while the security forces had thwarted previous kidnapping attempts, “this incident apparently slipped under our radar.”
Israeli officials believe the kidnappers, who have given no public indication yet that they are holding the teenagers, may try to trade them for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. In 2011 Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip and held by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.