Israeli troops on Sunday arrested some 80 Palestinians, including dozens of Hamas members, in an overnight raid in the West Bank as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Islamic militant group of kidnapping three teenagers who went missing nearly three days ago.
The crisis escalated already heightened tensions between Israel and the new Palestinian government, which is headed by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, but backed by Hamas.
Netanyahu has condemned Abbas's agreement with the militant group, and said he would hold him responsible for the safety of the youths, who disappeared apparently while hitchhiking in the West Bank late Thursday. The three, one of whom holds American citizenship, have not been heard from since then.
Palestinian officials condemned the overnight crackdown and rejected Netanyahu's contention that they are responsible. Hamas, meanwhile, praised the apparent kidnapping but stopped short of accepting responsibility.
Israel blames Hamas
Speaking to his Cabinet Sunday, Netanyahu said there was no doubt who was responsible.
"Those who perpetrated the abduction of our youths were members of Hamas, the same Hamas that Abu Mazen made a unity government with. This has severe repercussions," he said. Abbas is also known as Abu Mazen.
Netanyahu did not say how Israel determined Hamas was responsible.
Palestinian militants have repeatedly threatened to kidnap Israelis, hoping to use them as bargaining chips to win the release of prisoners held by Israel. This would be the first time three civilians have been taken at the same time.
The overnight raid was concentrated in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, in the area where the youths disappeared.
A Hamas website said more than 60 of those arrested were members, including senior figures in the movement. The Israeli military also detained supporters of Islamic Jihad, a smaller Palestinian militant group.
"Palestinian terrorists will not feel safe, will not be able to hide and will feel the heavy arm of the Israeli military capabilities," military spokesman Lt.-Col. Peter Lerner said.
Hamas deflects responsibility
The Palestinians' self-rule government, which administers 38 per cent of the West Bank, has insisted it is not to blame, saying the teens went missing in territory under full Israeli control.
"The Israeli government cannot blame the Palestinians for security issues in areas that are not controlled by them," said Ehab Bseiso, the spokesman of the Palestinian unity government.
'The Israeli government cannot blame the Palestinians for security issues in areas that are not controlled by them.' - Ehab Bseiso, spokesman of the Palestinian unity government
He also condemned what he called the "latest Israeli military escalation against the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli air attacks on Gaza, which led to the wounding of several Palestinians."
Asked about Netanyahu's claim that Hamas carried out the kidnapping, Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said that "this is something we have no information on."
In its first statement on the issue, Hamas praised the kidnapping but did not claim responsibility. In a message sent to journalists, it referred to "the success of the kidnapping" and said that "the movement pays tribute to the heroes who are behind the kidnapping."
In the Gaza Strip, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed Netanyahu's claims of Hamas involvement in the abductions as "silly."
Hamas governed Gaza for seven years before striking the unity deal with Abbas. It remains in de facto control of the coastal territory, which is separated from the West Bank by Israel.
Other suspects emerge
Despite the exchange of accusations, security officials from Israel and Abbas's forces have been co-operating closely in the West Bank trying to find the kidnappers.
Abbas met with his security chiefs late Saturday and urged them to do anything they can to contribute to the search, said a senior Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief journalists.
Hamas, branded a terror group by the West for its long history of attacks on Israeli civilians, has been involved in past abductions.
But this time around, there are other potential suspects. In recent months, there have been growing signs of the emergence in the West Bank of small groups of militants who identify with al-Qaeda.
One of several claims of responsibility for the kidnapping came from a group that said it was linked to an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which controls parts of Syria and overran parts of northern Iraq last week.
A Palestinian group representing prisoners said about 100 were arrested in the raid, including some who have been jailed in the past.
The military also said its aircraft struck several targets in Gaza overnight in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said a girl was lightly wounded.