Israel aims to break Hamas as hunt for youths intensifies

JERUSALEM - Israel stepped up efforts to crush Hamas in the West Bank Tuesday as the hunt for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by the Islamist movement entered its fifth day.

Thousands of troops searching for the youths turned their attention overnight to the northern West Bank city of Nablus and surrounding area, arresting 41 Palestinians, the army said.

So far, Israel has arrested around 200 people, most of them Hamas members, as it presses a vast search operation for the students, two of them minors.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas militants of kidnapping the youths last week, but has warned that the hunt for them "may take time." Israel has said it holds Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas responsible for the safe return of the three, with Netanyahu phoning him to demand his help in the search efforts in what was their first direct political contact since 2012.

So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility, and Hamas has dismissed Israel's accusations as "stupid." On Monday, the European Union condemned "in the strongest terms the abduction of three Israeli students" calling for their immediate release.

"It is, frankly, despicable that children's lives should be put in danger in this way," Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU's ambassador to Israel, said in a statement.

Smashing Hamas

Israel's security cabinet decided Monday to expand moves against Hamas and smash its political and social infrastructure in the West Bank, officials said.

"As long as our boys remain abducted, Hamas will feel pursued, paralysed and threatened," said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, the military's official spokesman.

"We are committed to resolving the kidnapping and debilitating Hamas terrorist capacities, its infrastructure and its recruiting institutions," he said.

Ministers also examined the possibility of banishing its senior members to Gaza and demolishing their West Bank homes, media reports said.

Meeting again Tuesday for three hours, the security cabinet decided to further "increase pressure" on Hamas, an official told AFP, saying there was "a discussion about steps that can be taken against Hamas prisoners." He gave no further details, but press reports said the aim was to harshen the conditions for Hamas prisoners being held by Israel.

'Entry ticket to hell'

"Israel has decided to perform a root canal to uproot everything green in the West Bank," said army radio, referring to the colour representing Hamas.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told the radio Israel had decided to "dramatically" change its approach to the Islamist movement.

"We will turn membership in Hamas into an entry ticket to hell," he said.

Writing in Yediot Aharonot, Alex Fishman said the kidnapping had created a "one-time operational opportunity" which Israel would use "to castrate" Hamas and suppress its "strongholds in Palestinian Authority territory to the greatest extent possible." Pundits said Israel wanted to bring about the collapse of a newly-formed Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas, the first fruits of a reconciliation deal between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza which has been denounced by Netanyahu.

Crushing Hamas's infrastructure would weaken the movement ahead of Palestinian elections which, under the unity deal, are supposed to take place by the year's end, Fishman wrote.

But as the manhunt entered its fifth day, commentators voiced concern about growing reports of clashes around the West Bank, sparking fears that an already tense situation could rapidly escalate.

On Monday, troops shot dead a 19-year-old Palestinian during clashes in Jalazoun camp north of Ramallah.

And overnight, soldiers troops shot another Palestinian suspected of trying to infiltrate a settlement in the same area, the army said. Unconfirmed reports said he was in serious condition.

In Gaza, the Israeli air force carried out a fourth straight night of air strikes after militants fired more rockets over the border.