As Israeli forces scoured the West Bank for traces of the trio, detaining scores of Palestinians including former Hamas lawmakers, the P.A. foreign ministry accused Israel of a “fierce attack” against the Palestinian people.
Implying that the missing teens were at fault for being in the disputed West Bank in the first place, it said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself was responsible for the “illegal presence” of Israelis “in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee issued a statement during a meeting Sunday chaired by Abbas – Abbas heads both the PLO and P.A. – accusing Israel of using “the alleged kidnapping” as a pretext to launch a “racist” campaign against Palestinians, the official P.A. news agency Wafa reported.
Responding to Netanyahu’s statement that he holds Abbas responsible, P.A. spokesmen noted that the area of the West Bank where the three disappeared falls under Israeli control (in terms of the Oslo accords), and their safety was therefore Israel’s responsibility.
In his statement to the cabinet, Netanyahu called that assertion “patently absurd.”
“When an attack takes place in Tel Aviv or in London or in New York – all these places have been attacked by terrorists – the question is not where the attack takes place,” he said. “The question is where it originated. The kidnappers in this case set out from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and the P.A. cannot absolve itself of its responsibility.”
Netanyahu accused Hamas of abducting the three teens who went missing in the West Bank three days ago and said his government was holding Abbas responsible since he had entered a unity pact with the terrorist group.
“Instead of abiding by his international obligation to disarm Hamas, President Abbas has chosen to make Hamas his partner,” Netanyahu said during a cabinet meeting Sunday.
“I believe that the dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all. We have seen since the signing of that pact an increase in terrorist activity emanating from the West Bank.”
One of the missing boys, 16-year-old Naftali Frenkel, holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship. He, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 went missing between Bethlehem and Hebron on Thursday. One of them later that night managed to call a police emergency line and whispered that they had been kidnapped, officials confirmed on Sunday afternoon.
Hamas denied involvement but did not conceal its delight about the abductions, saying in a statement it “pays tribute to the heroes” responsible.
Abbas’ Fatah movement did not go that far, but posted a cartoon on its official Facebook page depicting Frenkel, Shaar and Yifrach as rats dangling on the end of fish hooks.
Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement condemned the kidnapping, called for the teenagers’ immediate release, and encouraged full cooperation between Israeli and P.A. security services.
“We are still seeking details on the parties responsible for this despicable terrorist act, although many indications point to Hamas’ involvement,” he said.
“As we gather this information, we reiterate our position that Hamas is a terrorist organization known for its attacks on innocent civilians and which has used kidnapping in the past.”
Kerry’s statement did not refer to Frenkel’s U.S. citizenship.
Prisoner swap debate
Prayer vigils for the safe return of Frenkel, Shaar and Yifrach were held in several Israeli locations on Sunday, including Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s Old City, where more than 10,000 people gathered at the Western Wall, the nearest Jews can get to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.
Officials from Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups frequently speak publicly about the importance of taking Israelis hostage in order to win prisoner releases. According to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, 30 such abduction attempts were prevented in 2013 and 14 so far this year.
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was held by terrorists in the Gaza Strip for five years before Israel in Oct. 2011 released more than 1,000 prisoners, including some responsible for deadly terror attacks, in exchange for his freedom.
That lopsided exchange stoked anguished debate in a society torn between the desire to bring home every captured soldier, anger over the high price paid for doing so, and fear that such swaps simply encourage future kidnappings.
Just four days before the three boys – not soldiers in this case but seminary students – went missing, the cabinet approved a law designed to prevent future prisoner releases by denying amnesty to Palestinians jailed for deadly attacks.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli radio Sunday that the teens’ abduction was partly in response to earlier Israeli decisions to swap Palestinian prisoners for kidnapped Israelis.
There would be no further freeing of Palestinian prisoners, he said, alluding also to releases agreed to by Netanyahu as goodwill gestures during now-suspended U.S.-brokered peace negotiations.
Prodded by Kerry, Netanyahu agreed to free 104 long-term prisoners in four stages. Three of the releases duly took place, but the release of the last 26 fell foul to the talks’ disintegration and eventual collapse in the spring.
The Obama administration drew criticism from some quarters early this month for its approach to the P.A. unity government. Although it was based on a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, the administration said since ministers in the government were technocrats unaffiliated with Hamas, it would continue to fund the P.A.
Restrictions in U.S. appropriations legislation prohibit funding for “any entity effectively controlled by Hamas, any power sharing government of which Hamas is a member, or that results from an agreement with Hamas and over which Hamas exercises undue influence.”