JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using the so-far fruitless search for three missing Israeli teens thought to have been kidnapped in the West Bank as a springboard for a broad campaign against the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Since the teens disappeared last Thursday, Israeli forces have rounded up more than 200 people _ 40 of them overnight Tuesday. Most of them are linked to Hamas, including political leaders of the group in the West Bank, legislators and former members of the Palestinian Authority’s Cabinet.
The Israeli security Cabinet on Tuesday authorized tighter restrictions on Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails and is considering other measures, including shutting down charities and other institutions linked to Hamas and expelling the group’s leaders from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
Despite the massive military search and a sweep that’s expanded from Hebron in the southern West Bank to Nablus in the north, no trace has been found of the missing teenagers. There also has been no credible claim of responsibility for their disappearance.
Netanyahu has said _ without providing evidence _ that Hamas members kidnapped the three. He’s used the incident also to denounce the recently formed Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas and the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The brutal abduction of three Israeli teenagers shows the true face of Hamas,” Netanyahu said at a meeting Tuesday with Tony Blair, a representative of the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators: the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
“The international community . . . must call on President Abbas to end his pact with Hamas,” Netanyahu added. “Anybody who supports peace must tell the Palestinian Authority that they cannot build a government that is backed by the kidnappers of children and the murderers of innocents.”
While Israeli military officials say their operation is degrading Hamas’ capabilities in the West Bank, the suspected kidnapping has left both Netanyahu and Abbas in a bind.
Having failed to find the missing teens despite the military deployment, Netanyahu has launched the parallel operation against Hamas.
“When you don’t succeed in solving a problem, redefine it,” wrote Amir Oren, defense analyst for the liberal newspaper Haaretz. Unable to find the teenagers so far, he said, Netanyahu “is drawing another target, the campaign against Hamas.”
Oren said one goal of that campaign was “to distract attention from the failure in preventing the attack.” Police acknowledge that they received a phone call from one of the teens, saying they were in trouble, but the officers treated it as a prank until one of the fathers reported his son missing hours later.
The suspected abduction has also put Abbas in a predicament, threatening to scuttle his recent agreement with Hamas on a unity government.
While not claiming responsibility for the disappearances, Hamas has welcomed the idea of a kidnapping as an effective means of freeing Palestinian prisoners and has called the cooperation of Abbas’ forces in the search for the youths “a knife in the back.”
Proof that Hamas was involved in the disappearances _ Abbas has condemned the alleged kidnapping _ might sink the reconciliation accord with Fatah and unravel the unity government, which has gained broad international recognition, some commentators said.
“The fragile links between the (Palestinian) Authority and Hamas could become more of a crack,” Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, told Israel Radio.
Hamas seized an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2006 and held him for more than five years in the Gaza Strip before exchanging him for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
In a radio interview, Mohammad Nazzal, a Hamas leader in exile, said that every passing day in which the Israelis failed to find the teenagers was “a tremendous achievement.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.