As Israel’s campaign to locate three Jewish teenagers missing and believed abducted in the West Bank entered its sixth day, support came Wednesday from an unexpected direction with strong comments from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Addressing foreign ministers of Islamic countries in Saudi Arabia, Abbas declared “the three teens are human beings like us and they should be returned to their families.”
He added: "Those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us. We will hold them accountable.”
Abbas also defended his Palestinian Authority’s cooperation with Israeli security forces, which has continued despite a diplomatic crisis over the formation of a new Palestinian government and the failure of peace talks. The new government was formed in cooperation with Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization.
While no credible group has claimed responsibility for abducting the youths, who disappeared while hitchhiking from their religious seminary in the West Bank last Thursday, Israel has pointed the finger at Hamas.
“I cannot go into specifics … but we say this without hesitation,” army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told reporters Wednesday.
Abbas’s comments drew sharp responses from Hamas, underscoring the fragility of the recent reconciliation of the rival Palestinian factions.
Media reports quoted Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group in Gaza, saying Abbas’ coordination with Israeli security was “harmful to Palestinian reconciliation.” He called it a “psychological blow to thousands of Palestinian prisoners” in Israeli prisons.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office reacted more coolly. Abbas would be judged by his actions, not words, and his “real test is dismantling his agreement with Hamas,” an unidentified source in the prime minister's office was quoted as telling the newspaper Haaretz.
Israel’s military campaign in the West Bank has turned into a two-pronged effort to retrieve the teenagers and crack down on Hamas' infrastructure in the area.
Thousands of troops are deployed and more than 800 locations have been searched so far as forces hunt above and below ground for signs of the teenagers, aided by aerial and other surveillance systems.
Israeli forces have detained 250 Palestinians so far in a series of nightly raids, including more than 50 Palestinians freed from Israeli jails in 2011 in an exchange with Hamas in return for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
If Israeli authorities determine that the former prisoners violated the terms of release by returning to militant activity, they may be returned to jail for the remainder of their original sentences.
In most past cases, kidnap victims have been either held hostage or killed and buried, according to Lerner. However, he said, the army cannot rule out the possibility that they might be smuggled out of the region.
“We are acting under the understanding that they are alive,” he said.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.