Israel stepped up efforts to crush Hamas in the West Bank Tuesday as the hunt for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by the Islamist movement entered its fifth day.
Thousands of troops searching for the youths turned their attention overnight to the northern West Bank city of Nablus and surrounding area, arresting 41 Palestinians, the army said.
So far, Israel has arrested around 200 people, most of them Hamas members, as it presses a vast search operation for the students, two of them minors.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas militants of kidnapping the youths last week, but has warned that the hunt for them “may take time.”
Israel has said it holds Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas responsible for the safe return of the three, with Netanyahu telephoning him to demand his help in the search efforts in what was their first direct political contact since 2012.
So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility, and Hamas has dismissed Israel’s accusations as “stupid.”
On Tuesday, members of all the armed factions in the Gaza Strip — except the radical Islamic Jihad group — expressed support for “any effort of Palestinian resistance” and vowed revenge for Israel’s “criminal” West Bank actions.
“The resistance will not stand idly by in the face of the enemy’s criminal deeds,” they said in a joint press conference.
Earlier in the day, the European Union condemned “in the strongest terms the abduction of three Israeli students” calling for their immediate release.
“It is, frankly, despicable that children’s lives should be put in danger in this way,” the EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, said.
Israel’s security cabinet decided Monday to expand moves against Hamas and smash its political and social infrastructure in the West Bank, officials said.
Meeting again Tuesday for three hours, the security cabinet decided to further “increase pressure” on Hamas, an official told AFP, saying there was “a discussion about steps that can be taken against Hamas prisoners.”
He gave no further details, but press reports said the aim was to harshen the conditions for Hamas prisoners being held by Israel.
“The battle against (Hamas) is complex and ongoing, it didn’t begin today and won’t end soon,” central region commander Major General Nitzan Alon said, vowing the Islamist movement would emerge from the current clash “weakened operationally and strategically.”
– ‘Entry ticket to hell’ –
“Israel has decided to perform a root canal to uproot everything green in the West Bank,” said army radio, referring to the colour of Hamas.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told the radio Israel had decided to “dramatically” change its approach to the Islamist movement.
“We will turn membership in Hamas into an entry ticket to hell,” he said.
Writing in Yediot Aharonot, Alex Fishman said the kidnapping had created a “one-time operational opportunity” that Israel would use to “castrate” Hamas and suppress its “strongholds in Palestinian Authority territory to the greatest extent possible.”
Pundits said Israel wanted to bring about the collapse of a newly formed Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas, the first fruits of a reconciliation deal between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza that has been denounced by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu attacked the reconciliation deal during a meeting with Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair.
“The international community… must call on president Abbas to end his pact with Hamas,” Netanyahu said.
Crushing Hamas’s infrastructure would weaken the movement ahead of Palestinian elections which, under the unity deal, are supposed to take place by the year’s end, Fishman wrote.
But Israel will ultimately fail to eliminate the group entirely, said Palestinian political analyst Nashat al-Aqtash.
“This is not the first time Israel has arrested or exiled Hamas political leaders. And each time it has failed to eliminate Hamas. This time will be no exception,” he told AFP.