Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Islamist Hamas movement of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last week, and his defense minister warned that the group’s leaders will “pay dearly.”
Netanyahu leveled the allegation after Israeli security forces arrested about 80 Hamas operatives and officials in the West Bank overnight, according to an army statement. The Israeli leader linked the abduction to Hamas’ entry into the Palestinian government earlier this month.
“This morning I can say what I refrained from saying yesterday before the extensive wave of arrests,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting today in Jerusalem. “Those who carried out the kidnapping of our youths are members of Hamas -- the same Hamas that Abu Mazen formed a unity government with; this has severe repercussions,” he added, according to a text message from his office.
Abu Mazen is West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who teamed up with Hamas to govern on June 2 after peace talks with Israel collapsed. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, as do the U.S. and European Union, and is shunning the new Palestinian coalition.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, dismissed Netanyahu’s remarks as “stupid.” He didn’t confirm or deny the prime minister’s allegations in his e-mailed statement.
Hamas held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive in the Gaza Strip for five years before freeing him in 2011 in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at a ceremony later in the day that Hamas leaders will “pay dearly” for their role in the June 12 kidnappings in the West Bank, “whenever and wherever Israel sees fit.” While he didn’t elaborate, Israel has assassinated Hamas leaders in the past.
Netanyahu has said he ordered the military to “prepare forces for any scenario,” and the military spokesman’s office said the army carried out a “very limited” call-up of reserves.
Channel 2 reported that one of the teens called the emergency police hotline to report the abduction and police took hours to act upon it. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld declined to comment when contacted by telephone.
As tensions with the Palestinians rose, the benchmark TA-25 index dropped 0.3 percent to 1,392.57 at the close in Tel Aviv.
Yaniv Pagot, chief strategist at Ramat Gan, Israel-based Ayalon Group Ltd., said the decline was “a gut reaction” by investors and that as long there was no escalation, the kidnapping wasn’t likely to have a long-term impact on the market. The yield on the benchmark government 2024 bond slipped 3 basis points to close at 2.85 in Tel Aviv.
Without confirming a kidnapping, Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official in Lebanon, told Al-Quds television yesterday that the disappearance of the teens “proved that resistance to Israel hasn’t been stifled.” He urged the kidnappers, “if there indeed were kidnappers,” to demand the “highest price” for the teens’ return.
Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 for the return of Shalit, who was captured outside Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who opposed the Shalit deal, said he would object to any other agreement that would release Palestinian security prisoners.
‘No More Freeing’
“There will be no more freeing of Palestinian terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons, not in the form of a gesture, or in any other way,” Liberman said on Army Radio today.
The teens disappeared at a time when Palestinians have been holding rallies across the West Bank in support of more than 100 Palestinians staging hunger strikes in Israeli prisons.
One of the kidnap victims is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, Rosenfeld said. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been trying to advance peace talks this year, has spoken with both Netanyahu and Abbas since the youths disappeared.
Coming at a time when even the possibility of peace talks is dim, the kidnapping raised concerns that violence could spiral.
“Israel and the Palestinians are on the edge of an abyss,” said Yoram Meital, a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “This could have the dynamic of action, retaliation and then another action, and could easily take the parties into a vicious cycle.”
Violence has also been simmering along the border with Gaza, with rockets fired at southern Israel drawing Israeli air strikes, the Israeli military said.