Israeli forces sweep West Bank towns, hunting for kidnapped teens

Israel says members of Hamas kidnapped the three Israeli seminary students. They disappeared on Thursday after leaving a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli armed forces swept through half a dozen Palestinian towns on Monday and arrested more Hamas officials, expanding a search for three teenagers into a crackdown on the Islamist group accused of abducting them.

In al-Jalazoun refugee camp, near the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah, Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli troops and army gunfire killed a 20-year-old Palestinian and wounded another, hospital officials said.

Israel says members of Hamas, which signed a unity deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in April, kidnapped the three seminary students. They disappeared on Thursday after leaving a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, chief of Israel's armed forces, said the military was preparing to expand its operation.

"We have a goal, and that is to find these three boys and bring them home, and to hit Hamas as hard as possible - and that is what we are going to do," Gantz said in broadcast comments, at a meeting with army officers.

"We are on our way toward a significant campaign. We will get our plans in order."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who broke off peace talks with Abbas after the Palestinian reconciliation pact, held a rare telephone conversation with the Western-backed Palestinian leader on Monday.

The prime minister's office said in a statement that Netanyahu told Abbas he expected him to help in efforts to find Gil-Ad Shaer and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Frankel, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19.

ABBAS CONDEMNS KIDNAPPING, ISRAELI RESPONSE
In a separate statement, Abbas's office said the "Palestinian presidency condemns ... the kidnapping of three Israeli boys and the series of Israeli violations" - a reference to Israeli military raids and arrests.

Israeli officials have already cited security coordination with Abbas's Palestinian Authority in the search for the three.

Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, called such cooperation a "poisonous knife in the back of our people". Netanyahu has said Hamas members kidnapped the teenagers, an allegation the group has neither confirmed nor denied.

Israeli troops conducted predawn door-to-door searches in six Palestinian towns on Monday, witnesses said.

The Israeli military said some more 40 Palestinians, including "Hamas leadership and operatives", were arrested in the West Bank, raising to about 150 the number of people detained since Thursday.

Witnesses said several Palestinian lawmakers from Hamas, including parliament speaker Aziz Dweik, were taken into custody. The legislature has not convened since 2007 amid a rift between Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip that year, and Abbas's Fatah movement.

Most of the military efforts have been concentrated in the West Bank Palestinian city of Hebron, a Hamas stronghold, and Netanyahu was to convene his security cabinet later on Monday.

An Israeli government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel was looking to leverage the search into a wider clampdown on Hamas in the West Bank and was also looking at legal aspects of deporting West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza.

As The Christian Science Monitor reports, hitchhiking is common among Israel settlers.

It's a common practice among Israeli settlers, especially teens, driven not only by perhaps a lack of patience or time to wait for the next bus but also a pioneer ethos fueled by faith and an unswerving belief in their right to this land. Most Israeli settlers are unwilling to be held hostage by fear of their Palestinian neighbors or by the United Nations, which has deemed their presence here illegal under international law.

“[Hitchhiking] is what we’ve done since age 0,” said Naama, a young woman who lives two minutes away from the Mekor Chaim yeshiva where the missing teens study, located about half an hour south of Jerusalem in the Israeli settlement of Kfar Etzion.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

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