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Israeli soldiers arrested 41 Palestinians in the West Bank early on Tuesday while searching for three Israeli teenagers, Israel Defense Forces officials said, underscoring the military’s crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank while they search for the missing teens.
Israel blames Hamas for the disappearance of three seminary students who were hitchhiking in the West Bank last week. Israeli forces have detained more than 200 Palestinians, mostly Hamas activists, in “the biggest West Bank crackdown on the militant group in almost a decade,” according to the Associated Press.
The overnight search included about 1,000 soldiers, who shut down a shop manufacturing weapons, confiscated pistols, explosives, grenades, and ammunition, and seized computers belonging to a Hamas-affiliated group, according to Israel’s Haaretz. About half of the arrests were in Nablus, the West Bank city north of Hebron where earlier searches concentrated.
In a meeting Monday, officers decided “to expand the treatment of Hamas in the West Bank, and use the upcoming days to arrest anyone ‘infected’ with Hamas,” an unnamed senior military officer told Haaretz.
Hamas, an Islamist movement that does not recognize Israel’s right to existence, has neither accepted nor denied responsibility for the kidnapping, Reuters reports.
Also on Tuesday, the European Union condemned the kidnapping and called for the safe return of the three teenagers, identified as Eyal Yifrach,19, and Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16. Israel had criticized the EU for not speaking out against the incident earlier. The US, Canada, Great Britain, and Spain have all condemned the attack.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Christa Case Bryant, explains that Israel views the kidnappings as the “inevitable fruit” of the reconciliation deal announced in April between the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel’s criticism of the Palestinian Authority could undermine its close security cooperation with its security forces, the Monitor reported:
But Israel is also walking a fine line: Its coordination with Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank is widely credited with establishing a relative calm over the past few years by helping Israeli forces to hunt down militants and thwart attacks on Israelis.
In an environment where Israeli soldiers control the movement of Palestinians, and can detain suspects without charge for months on end, the PA’s coordination with Israeli security forces is deeply unpopular – particularly among Hamas supporters, who advocate armed resistance.
While Israel has sought help from PA security forces in tracking down the kidnappers, Hamas deeply disagrees with such security coordination though it does not appear to have the political leverage to stop it.
Tension is rising in the West Bank, where residents are angry that the search for three missing teens are making international headlines, while a Palestinian prisoner hunger strike and the detention of Palestinians by Israeli forces go unnoticed, The New York Times reports.
“Our children, the prisoners, more than 50 days they’re without food, and nobody talks about it. Because of this kidnapping, the whole world opens its mouth,” said Kayed Jaber, 49, a father of 10 [in Hebron]. “They have three boys missing,” he added, referring to Israel. “This is like they arrest 800,000 people in the Hebron area — look at the checkpoints.”
The local radio station played warlike anthems interspersed with bulletins about how many tanks were invading what neighborhood. In the Bab al Zawya district, Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets at a few youths hurling stones and rolling flaming tires. Along Peace Street, the main thoroughfare, sweet shops and cellphone stands, car dealerships and clothing boutiques all sat idle behind roll-down gates or wooden shutters.
Many said there had not been similar scenes since the violent second intifada in the early 2000s.
“We, as Palestinians, of course we are suffering collective punishment,” said Daoud Zatari, Hebron’s mayor. “If it will last long it will have devastating and severe consequences on the people, not only from the economic side. The life is miserable now. They are feeling they are living in a surrounded zone, as if we are all in a big jail.”
There are also rampant conspiracy rumors in the Palestinian territories, questioning whether the kidnapping actually occurred, the Times reports:
Leaders referred to the “alleged kidnapping” in some of their official statements, and social networks were filled with conspiracy theories of how Jewish settlers staged the event or the Israeli government was using it as a pretext to oust Hamas from the West Bank and thwart the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recent reconciliation with Hamas.
Ahmad Abu Eisheh, 27, noted that no credible claim of responsibility had yet emerged.
“Hamas announces when they kidnap,” said Mr. Abu Eisheh, who works at a cleaning company. “For sure it’s a film. They want to destroy the reconciliation.”
At the core of the dispute are "fears and frustrations on both sides," the Monitor explains:
The incident highlights fears and frustrations on both sides, with Israelis deeply concerned about the security ramifications of Hamas rejoining the Palestinian government based in the West Bank, and Palestinians backing almost 300 prisoners on hunger strike due to Israel’s practice of holding them without charge for six months or longer.
With Israel’s track record of releasing Palestinian prisoners for kidnapped soldiers, such as the swap of 1,027 prisoners for Sgt. Gilad Shalit in 2011, many Palestinians advocate the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers or civilians as bargaining chips for justice.