Israel PM in rare phone call to Abbas over kidnap crisis

JERUSALEM - Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu told Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas Monday he expected his help in ensuring the return of three kidnapped teenagers, in their first direct political contact since 2012.

The phone conversation took place as Israel pressed a vast search operation in the West Bank to find the three youths, whom Netanyahu has said were kidnapped last week by militants from the Islamist Hamas movement.

As the manhunt entered its fourth day, Israeli troops continued with a massive crackdown on Hamas, arresting scores of its operatives, among them former ministers and MPs.

Since Friday, Israel has arrested more than 150 Palestinians, most of them Hamas members, in the biggest sweep in the territories in years.

As the crisis developed, Netanyahu telephoned Abbas to spell out his demands in what was their first conversation of a political nature in nearly two years.

"I expect you to help in the return of the kidnapped youths and the capture of the kidnappers," Netanyahu told him.

"The Hamas kidnappers went out from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority and returned to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority," he said.

So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility, with Hamas dismissing Israel's accusations as "stupid".

Confirming the phone call between Netanyahu and Abbas, the official WAFA Palestinian news agency said the conversation had "focused on following up on the case of the three (teenagers) who disappeared last Thursday and the ongoing Israeli escalation." Abbas's office issued a statement condemning "the kidnapping of three Israeli youths".

But it also denounced Israel's "raids on Palestinian homes" and the widespread arrest of "many innocents" during which a 19-year-old Palestinian was killed.

The victim, Ahmad Arafat Sabarin, was shot dead during clashes in Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah which erupted when troops arrived on an arrest mission, medics told AFP.

An army spokeswoman said soldiers opened fire after "violence erupted and stones were thrown at them from rooftops and alleyways, injuring three." Although arrests have taken place across the West Bank, troops are focusing their search on the southern city of Hebron and the surrounding area, home to some 663,000 Palestinians.

A policy of kidnapping

Overnight, soldiers arrested more than more than 40 Palestinians "including Hamas leadership and operatives" the army said.

Among those picked up was parliamentary speaker Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member who lives in Hebron.

A Palestinian security source said Dweik was one of six Hamas MPs arrested in Hebron. The Islamist movement holds 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

A Palestinian intelligence officer told AFP that the kidnapping bore the hallmarks of a Hamas operation, noting that the Islamist movement had a policy of keeping its captives alive in the hope of securing a prisoner swap deal.

"A movement like Hamas is the only Palestinian movement which has a policy of kidnapping and holding hostages alive in exchange for prisoners," said Nizam al-Jaabari, former head of intelligence for the Hebron division.

The crisis emerged 10 days after the establishment of a new Palestinian government of technocrats, the firstfruits of a reconciliation deal between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza which has been furiously denounced by Israel.

"It is important to understand the implications of the partnership with Hamas - it is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and it is bad for the region," Netanyahu told Abbas.

Golden opportunity

Pundits said the Netanyahu government had been presented with a "golden opportunity" to deal both a military and a diplomatic blow to its Islamist nemesis.

"Had Israel arrested dozens of Hamas leaders and imposed a curfew on large areas (of the West Bank) a week ago, the Palestinian Authority would have raised an outcry... Today the Palestinian Authority is silent," wrote Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

Should the Israeli crackdown result in a further escalation around the Gaza border, it would play right into Israel's hands, he wrote.

"From Israel's point of view, there is a golden opportunity here: both to ruin the image of the unity government and to deal with the rocket arsenal." Israeli warplanes carried out bombing raids during the night after militants fired two rockets over the Gaza border, both of them intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Palestinian medics said four people, including a three-year-old girl, were moderately wounded by shrapnel.

The missing three are Gilad Shaer, 16, from Talmon settlement near Ramallah, Naftali Frenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, from Elad, both in central Israel.