JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday squarely blamed the militant Palestinian movement Hamas for the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, as Israel’s military closed off part of the southern West Bank after arresting 80 people overnight, many of them Hamas activists.
“The kidnapping was carried out by Hamas members,” Netanyahu said in a rare English statement aimed at galvanizing international attention. “We know that for a fact.”
The prime minister said the “attack should surprise no one,” because “Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel and to carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians — including children.” Israel holds President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority responsible, Netanyahu said.
The huge Israeli military mobilization in the southern West Bank to search for the three teenagers threatened to further destabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations, which were strained by Abbas’s formation of a new government this month after reconciling with the Islamist Hamas.
Though the Palestinian Authority’s security forces have cooperated with Israel in the search for the kidnappers, Hamas’s leaders have been celebrating the abduction as an act of resistance against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. The teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel, both 16, were last heard from Thursday night as they tried to hitchhike home from Jewish settlements in the West Bank where they study in yeshivas.
In an emotional statement broadcast Sunday on the radio, Frankel’s mother, Rachel Frankel, spoke directly to her son, who holds both Israeli and US citizenship.
“Naftali, Mom and Dad and your brothers love you to no end,” she said. “You should know that the people of Israel are turning worlds to bring you home.”
Two little-known groups made dubious claims of responsibility for the kidnapping over the weekend.
Netanyahu did not publicly cite evidence for his definitive assertion that Hamas was responsible for the kidnappings.
In a Facebook post, a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, called the accusation “stupid” and said that the arrests “are meant to weaken Hamas but they will never succeed.”
Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and an aide to Abbas, said Netanyahu only wanted to “seem as the victim for the international community.”
“Now he wants to hold us responsible for something we’re definitely not responsible for,” Abed Rabbo said on the Voice of Palestine radio station after Netanyahu’s statement Sunday morning. “No one in the world believes that the PA or the reconciliation government is responsible. Everybody knows who is responsible and continues to ignite fire in the region.”
Israel has roundly rejected the new Palestinian government as “backed by Hamas,” and has criticized the United States and Europe — which like Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization — for continuing to work with and finance the authority despite the reconciliation pact.
“You remember that Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact,” Netanyahu said Sunday, referring to Abbas’s secular Fatah faction. “The dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all.” He said that there had been an increase in “terrorist activity emanating from the West Bank” since the April reconciliation, and that “this increases the likelihood that Hamas will take control of the Palestinian Authority.”
“This will not advance peace; it will advance terror,” he added.
But Qadura Fares, the Palestinians’ former minister of prisoner affairs, said that “the kidnapping is the result of the peace-process stalemate,” and that both Netanyahu and Hamas leaders were trying to use it to “make political gains.”
In a statement issued Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Hamas appeared to have had a role in the kidnapping.
“We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas’ involvement,” Kerry said.