TEL AVIV - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused the Islamist Hamas movement of kidnapping three teenagers as a massive West Bank manhunt for the missing youths entered its third day.
As troops wrapped up the biggest arrest operation in years, detaining 80 Palestinians overnight - many of them Hamas members - Netanyahu pointed the finger of blame directly at the Islamist movement.
"This morning I can say what I could not say yesterday before the broad wave of arrests of Hamas people in Judaea and Samaria," he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
"Those who carried out the kidnapping of our youngsters are Hamas people - the same Hamas with whom Abu Mazen has forged a unity government, which has very serious implications," he said referring to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The youngsters, one of whom also holds a US passport, are students at Jewish seminaries in the West Bank and are believed to have been snatched Thursday night from an area Bethlehem and Hebron, reportedly while hitchhiking.
They have been identified as Gilad Shaer, 16, from Talmon settlement near Ramallah, Naftali Frenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon in Israel, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, from Elad near Tel Aviv.
Their disappearance came 10 days after the establishment of a new Palestinian government of technocrats pieced together by Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas following a unity agreement between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.
The reconciliation with Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, has enraged Israel, with Netanyahu placing responsibility for the teens' safe return on the shoulders of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu's remarks were made at the start of a special session of the weekly cabinet meeting held at the defence ministry.
Hamas dismisses 'stupid' accusations
His accusation was derided by Hamas.
"Netanyahu's statements accusing Hamas of kidnapping the (teenagers) are stupid," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP.