The Obama administration on Sunday joined Israel in implicating the militant group Hamas in connection with the kidnapping of three Israeli teens and called the move a “despicable terrorist act.”
The teens, including one who holds US citizenship, disappeared late Thursday apparently while hitchhiking in the country’s West Bank region.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already accused Hamas of being responsible for the kidnappings.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that officials are still investigating the abduction, but that “many indications point to Hamas’ involvement.”
He spoke the same day Israeli troops searching for the teens arrested roughly 80 Palestinians, including dozens of members of Hamas, in an overnight raid in the West Bank.
The crisis escalated already heightened tensions between Israel and the new Palestinian government, which is headed by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas but backed by Hamas.
Netanyahu has condemned Abbas’ agreement with Hamas and said he would hold him responsible for the safety of the youths.
Palestinian officials condemned the overnight crackdown and rejected Netanyahu’s contention that they are responsible.
However, both sides appear to be working together to find the missing teens.
“The United States strongly condemns the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers and calls for their immediate release,” Kerry said. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families. …We continue to offer our full support for Israel in its search for the missing teens, and we have encouraged full cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security services. We understand that cooperation is ongoing.”
Hamas has praised the apparent kidnappings, but stopped short of accepting responsibility.
Speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said there was no doubt who was responsible.
The Washington Post identified the missing youth with dual Israeli-American citizenship as 16-year-old Naftali Frankel.
Palestinian militants have repeatedly threatened to kidnap Israelis, hoping to use them as bargaining chips to win the release of prisoners held by Israel.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said Israel “will extract a heavy price from the Palestinian leadership” and will “do everything necessary to return the boys to their families.”
The overnight raid was concentrated in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, in the area where the youths disappeared.
A Hamas website said more than 60 of those arrested were members, including senior figures in the movement. The Israeli military also detained supporters of Islamic Jihad, a smaller Palestinian militant group.
The Palestinians’ self-rule government, which administers 38 percent of the West Bank, has insisted it is not to blame, saying the teens disappeared in territory under full Israeli control.
In its first statement on the issue, Hamas praised the kidnappings but did not claim responsibility. In a message sent to journalists, it referred to “the success of the kidnapping” and said that “the movement pays tribute to the heroes who are behind the kidnapping.”
However, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza dismissed Netanyahu’s claims as “silly.”
Hamas governed Gaza for seven years before striking the unity deal with Abbas. It remains in de facto control of the coastal territory, which is separated from the West Bank by Israel.
Hamas, branded a terrorist group by the West for its long history of attacks on Israeli civilians, has been involved in past abductions.
But this time around, there are other potential suspects. In recent months, there have been growing signs of the emergence in the West Bank of small groups of militants who identify with Al Qaeda.
One of several claims of responsibility for the kidnapping came from a group that said it was linked to an Al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, which controls parts of Syria and overran parts of northern Iraq last week.