JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister on Sunday accused the Hamas militant group of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers who disappeared over the weekend, as the military arrested dozens of Palestinians and closed off West Bank roads in a frantic search for the youths.
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. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, has condemned the alliance and said it holds Abbas responsible for the teens' safety.
"Hamas terrorists carried out Thursday's kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. We know that for a fact," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "Hamas denials do not change this fact."
Speaking in English, Netanyahu also tried to rally international opinion against the new Palestinian government. His calls for the international community to shun the government have been ignored so far.
"Instead of abiding by his international obligation to disarm Hamas, President Abbas has chosen to make Hamas his partner," he added. "I believe that the dangers of that pact now should be abundantly clear to all."
Netanyahu provided no evidence to back his claims. Palestinian officials rejected Netanyahu's contention that they are responsible. Hamas, meanwhile, praised the apparent kidnapping but stopped short of accepting responsibility.
The three youths, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, disappeared Thursday night as they were heading home from a West Bank religious school.
Officials confirmed that one of the teens called a police emergency line around 10:25 p.m. and said, "We've been kidnapped." They have not been heard from since then.
Frenkel also holds American citizenship. Addressing reporters outside the family home in the central Israeli town of Nof Ayalon, his mother, Rachelle, thanked the public, the Israeli security services and the U.S. Embassy for offering support.
"The professional people will do their job, and we do trust them. And everybody else, if you could please pray with us," she said in English. "We trust that Eyal, and Gilad and Naftali, boys coming home on their way from school, they were just on their way home, will be here with us and we'll hug them soon."
The case has riveted the nation's attention, receiving around-the-clock coverage in local media. Late Sunday, more than 10,000 people converged at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, for a special mass prayer, police said.
Palestinian militants have repeatedly threatened to kidnap Israelis, hoping to use them as bargaining chips to win the release of prisoners held by Israel. This would be the first time three civilians have been taken at the same time.
Military officials said that given the nature of the kidnapping, evidence pointed to Hamas involvement. A senior Israeli military intelligence officer said only the "most institutionalized cells ... promote suicide bombers attacks and kidnapping." Asked whether this could refer to other groups beside Hamas, Lt. Col Peter Lerner said: "No."
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