Israeli troops intensified their campaign against Hamas with more arrests across the West Bank, part of a campaign to cripple the militant organization and find three teenagers the government says the group kidnapped.
The army is focusing on Hamas’s capabilities, infrastructure and recruitment, spokesman Peter Lerner said in a text message, and has taken about 200 Palestinians into custody. The Islamist group applauded the June 12 abduction of the youths from a West Bank hitchhiking station without claiming responsibility.
“Membership in Hamas will turn into a ticket to hell,” Naftali Bennett, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet, said in an interview with Israel Radio.
Hamas, which formed a joint government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on June 2, is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union for its attacks on Israelis. It held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive in the Gaza Strip for five years before trading him in 2011 for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The group, which has ruled Gaza for the past seven years, e-mailed a statement to reporters saying it would neither confirm nor deny involvement in the kidnapping. By blaming Hamas, “the enemy is seeking to justify its aggression against our people,” it said.
Netanyahu’s security cabinet met today and decided to take unspecified steps to increase pressure on Hamas members in Israeli prisons, a government official said on condition of anonymity because the broader package of measures is still under discussion. When Shalit was held by Hamas, steps included limiting family visits and cutting privileges to watch television and read newspapers.
More than 100 Palestinian prisoners have been observing a hunger strike for six weeks to protest their detention without trial, leading to support rallies across the West Bank and Gaza.
Netanyahu met with former U.K. premier and Middle East mediator Tony Blair, and told him that the “international community” must demand that Abbas call off his joint governing agreement with Hamas and “support Israel’s right to defend itself,” according to a text message from Netanyahu’s office.
The EU’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Anderson, said the kidnapping was “despicable,” according to an e-mailed statement. He conveyed the organization’s “strong condemnation” while visiting a rabbi in Elad, hometown of one of the abducted youths.
Netanyahu has said, without providing evidence, that Hamas seized the youths. He has charged that the group’s entry into the new Palestinian government encouraged the abductions and has demanded that Abbas, who denounced the kidnappings, help to rescue the teens.
Israel’s stock market wasn’t hurt by the mounting tensions, with the benchmark TA-25 index little changed at 5 p.m. in Tel Aviv. The shekel fell 0.2 percent against the dollar.
Netanyahu said yesterday the kidnapping will have “grave consequences” for Hamas and advised Israelis to be prepared for a long military operation. The army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, said the goal is to rescue the youths and “hurt Hamas as much as possible.”
An Arab member of Israel’s parliament, Hanan Zoabi, caused a storm when she said in a radio interview that the kidnappers should not be labeled terrorists. “They’re people who see no chance of changing their reality and they’re forced to use these methods until Israel sobers up a bit,” she told 102 FM.
Miri Regev, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu parliamentary faction, said Zoabi is a “traitor and should be deported to Gaza,” Israel Radio reported.