Baz Ratner/Reuters

Israel’s search for missing settlers widens to Hamas crackdown

Palestinian political group continues to deny responsibility for kidnappings, while Israel promises to hit Hamas ‘hard’

Israel’s crackdown in its search for three missing teenage settlers widened Monday, as its military swept through half a dozen West Bank towns, detaining more than 150 Palestinians.

The Israeli military (IDF) has conducted night raids and door-to-door searches in at least six Palestinian towns since the three teens disappeared Thursday. Those detained include many Hamas officials and lawmakers, which Israel blames for the teens’ disappearance.

An Israeli government official speaking on condition of anonymity said Israel planned to leverage the search into a wider Hamas crackdown in the West Bank, and is looking into the legal aspects of deporting West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza.

Israel has deployed thousands of soldiers to the southern West Bank city of Hebron in its search for the missing settlers, erecting checkpoints and effectively closing the city. The IDF injured two young children with shrapnel when soldiers blew up the door of a house in Hebron during a night raid, according to Palestinian Ma’an News Agency.

Israeli settlers Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, disappeared Thursday after leaving a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government said. On Sunday night, thousands of Israelis gathered at Jerusalem's Western Wall to pray for the teens' safe return.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — an armed wing of Fatah — claimed responsibility for the kidnappings in a statement overnight, demanding the release of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and saying the settlers are not being held in Hebron.

Israel said it doubts the veracity of the claim and continues to blame Hamas, though it has yet to provide evidence of the group’s involvement. Hamas has denied responsibility, dismissing Israel’s accusation as “stupid.”

Israel has been outspoken in its criticism of Hamas in recent weeks, since rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed in April to form a unity government. Israel and the U.S. dismiss Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” although Washington has declined to heed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Washington sever ties with the government of technocrats created under the unity agreement.

Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, chief of Israel’s military, said its search for the teens would be expanded further, and said it aims to hit Hamas “hard.”

“We have a goal, and that is to find these three boys and bring them home, and to hit Hamas as hard as possible,” Gantz said in broadcast comments at a Monday meeting with army officers.

Israel has closed all entrances to the Gaza Strip, banned men under 50 from leaving the West Bank, and canceled visits to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israeli airstrikes overnight on Gaza injured two women after Israel claimed a rocket was fired from the strip.

Netanyahu telephoned Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, saying he expected Abbas’ help with ensuring the settlers’ safe return.

Adnan Dmeiri, spokesman for the Palestinian security services, said Friday that the Palestinian Authority was not responsible for the safety of settlers. Abbas issued a statement Monday condemning the kidnapping as well as the massive Israeli crackdown across the occupied territories.

“The Palestinian presidency ... condemns the series of events that happened last week, beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli youths,” the statement read, while also denouncing the wave of Israeli arrests during which a Palestinian youth was killed.

Twenty-year-old Palestinian Ahmad Sabarin was shot and killed at al-Jalazoun refugee camp, near Ramallah, by Israeli soldiers during a night raid.

More than 16,000 Israelis have joined a Facebook page that calls for the murder of a Palestinian every hour until the three missing settlers are found. Former member of Israel’s parliament Michael Ben Ari called on Israel to “kill terrorists in public hangings” in response to the kidnappings.

The Israeli public has also launched a Twitter campaign aimed at raising awareness of their three missing teens.

The “BringBackOurBoys” hashtag — capitalizing on the international success of Nigeria’s similar tag for the hundreds of missing school girls kidnapped by armed group Boko Haram last month ­— was picked up by the IDF’s official twitter page but has been met with Palestinian ire.

Palestinians said the disappearance of three Israelis doesn’t compare to the thousands of their people “kidnapped” and held prisoner by Israel over the decades of occupation.

The Israeli teens’ disappearance came on the 50th day of a hunger strike by 125 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. They are protesting Israel’s policy of "administrative detention" in which Palestinians are detained indefinitely without charge or trial.

The last Israeli kidnapped by a Palestinian group was soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006. Shalit was released in 2011 when Israel promised to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners in a swap.

With wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter