JERUSALEM — Israel is expanding the search for three Jewish teenagers said to be abducted by Palestinian militants in the West Bank.
Israeli forces, including paratroopers and elite anti-terror units, are conducting house-to-house searches in the West Bank for three kidnapped teenagers. The three are seminary students from Jewish settlements who disappeared while hitchhiking last Thursday near the biblical town of Hebron.
Most of the searches have focused on Hebron and nearby villages, but they were expanded north Monday to the area of Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli troops have arrested more than 150 Palestinians in the raids, most of them from the Islamic militant group Hamas.
“These teenagers were kidnapped and the kidnapping was carried out by Hamas members. We know that for a fact,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He did not offer any proof, but said it is Hamas' style.
“Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel and to carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, including children,” he said.
Hamas has praised the kidnapping, but it has not taken responsibility.
“Netanyahu's comments are stupid,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, adding that Israel is looking for an excuse to crack down on Palestinian resistance.
Nevertheless, Hamas has been calling for kidnappings to win another release of Palestinian prisoners. In 2011, Israel traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for captive soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held for more than five years by Hamas in Gaza.
The latest kidnapping comes just two weeks after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank formed a unity government, ending a seven-year rift. Israel bitterly criticized the move, saying it would not deal with a “terrorist government” backed by Hamas.
But Israel has continued to quietly cooperate with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu spoke with Abbas on the phone and said Israel expected him to help find the kidnapped teenagers. The Palestinian leader condemned the kidnapping, and Israel says his forces are helping in the search.