Israeli forces rearrested 50 Palestinians overnight who had been among hundreds released in a prisoner swap for a captured Israeli soldier three years ago, as the military entered the sixth day of a search for three missing settlers.
Late Tuesday night, the Israeli military carried out raids in the northern West Bank district of Nablus, arresting 65 Palestinians. At least 50 of those had been among the 1,027 Palestinians set free in exchange for Hamas’ release of Gilad Shalit.
The Israeli military is deliberately putting Palestinians released under the deal back in jail, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Wednesday, in what he called a move to show that kidnapping Israelis will not help Palestinian prisoners.
“The clear message is that not only are we taking action to release the boys, but also that when there is an abduction, we will put those who have been released back in jail,” Yaalon said in a meeting with the families of the abducted teens, according to Israeli news source Haaretz. Israel had already rearrested 44 of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal by late May, alleging they had violated the conditions of their release.
Rights groups have accused Israel of imposing collective punishment on Palestinians in its hunt for the missing teenagers. At least one Palestinian has been killed, dozens injured and hundreds arrested as a result of Israel’s most extensive military operation since the second intifada in 2000.
Thousands of Israeli soldiers have been deployed to some 800 locations across the West Bank. Countless homes have been raided, with residents reporting extensive property damage.
Hebron, a southern West Bank city and the initial focus of Israel’s search, has been under military closure since Saturday — with blanket travel restrictions applied to most males.
Israel has accused Hamas of being behind the kidnapping but hasn’t offered any evidence to back up the claim. The group has dismissed the allegation as “stupid.” Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed wing of Fatah, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping on Monday, but that claim hasn't been verified.
Critics have accused Israel of turning the search into a crackdown on Hamas after the political party it considers a terrorist group formed a unity government in April with Fatah.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he has cooperated with Israeli forces in trying to locate the missing teens, telling senior officials his forces are helping in the search because “these youths are human beings.”
Hamas slammed Abbas’ support for security coordination with Israel Wednesday, calling it “unjustified” and a “psychological blow to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners suffering a slow death in the occupation’s jails,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Hamas' criticism was echoed by other high-level Palestinian politicians.
"It is totally illogical to ask Palestinians who are under occupation to provide protection to their occupiers and to illegal settlers while they are unable to protect themselves from the attacks of these occupiers," Mustafa Barghouthi, Palestinian legislator and secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, said Wednesday.
"The attacks that are taking place are not against Hamas only. They are attacking all Palestinians and even arresting members of the [Palestinian Authority] security forces," he continued.
More than 5,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons, mainly for political reasons, and nearly 200 are held under administrative detention — indefinite arrest without charge or trial. A hunger strike by about 120 of the administrative detainees, which began on April 24, is ongoing.
Israeli forces have arrested 250 Palestinians since the teenage settlers disappeared Thursday from a settlement near Bethlehem. Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are considered illegal under international law and have been condemned by the United States.
On the heels of the mass arrests, Israel announced Wednesday that it had approved 172 new settlement homes in occupied East Jerusalem — just weeks after thousands were approved in apparent retaliation for the unity deal.
The announcement of new settlement construction prompted outrage from Palestinians and the international community, with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon urging Israel to freeze settlement activity immediately.
Al Jazeera and wire services