JERUSALEM — As Israel searches for three teenagers it says were kidnapped by Hamas, Israeli security forces are pursuing a parallel campaign to cripple the Islamist militant movement in the West Bank.
In the past four nights, Israeli troops have conducted predawn raids and detained at least 240 Palestinians, most of them members of Hamas. The troops have shut down Hamas radio stations, confiscated the group’s cash, captured its weapons and jailed its top-tier political leaders across the West Bank.
Israeli military commanders describe it as one of the most aggressive operations against Hamas in the territory in the past decade. Israel this week also deployed three combat brigades to the West Bank, supplementing the six already there.
Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The group maintains a political as well as a military wing and controls the Gaza Strip. It also has numerous members and supporters in the West Bank.
Israel accuses Hamas members of kidnapping the three teens, who disappeared almost a week ago while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in the West Bank.
Israel’s leadership is angry that Hamas and its longtime rival, the moderate Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, recently joined forces in a transitional “unity government.”
This week, Israel’s security cabinet ordered the military to hit Hamas hard. It also directed the interior minister to make living conditions for Hamas members in Israeli prisons tougher, banning family visits, for example.
Early Wednesday, Israel rearrested 51 former Hamas prisoners who were among the more than 1,000 Palestinians freed in a prisoner swap that secured the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. Shalit was kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for five years.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said: “We are committed to debilitating Hamas terror capabilities, its infrastructure, its ability to recruit. We are going to take a toll on Hamas.”
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett told Israel Radio that the campaign was designed not only to punish Hamas, but also to drive a wedge between it and the Palestinian people.
The kidnapping of the teens was seen by some Palestinians as a legitimate blow against their occupiers, but it has not been unanimously applauded.
“Those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us. We will hold them accountable,” Abbas said Wednesday at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
“The three young men are human beings just like us and must be returned to their families,” he said.
Abbas had earlier complained that the Israeli military sweeps in the West Bank were excessive, even as he had condemned the kidnappings.
Hamas’s spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Abbas’s comments were “unjustified, harmful to Palestinian reconciliation” and parroted “the Israeli narrative,” according to the Maan News Agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said Sunday that Hamas members were responsible for the kidnapping. “We know that for a fact,” he said.
Hamas has dismissed his accusation as “stupid.”
Israel has not revealed any direct evidence implicating Hamas or its members. Six days after the teens’ disappearance, there have been no claims of responsibility or ransom demands.
A top Israeli military commander, briefing foreign reporters in defense headquarters in Tel Aviv on the condition of anonymity, said the army suspects that the teens are still in the West Bank.
“We don’t have proof they are alive,” he said. “We don’t have proof they are dead.”
He said Hamas cells in the West Bank can operate independently under a loose chain of command. “They are told, ‘This is your mission. Go do what you can,’ ” he said. “ ‘Kidnap someone.’ ”
The officer painted a scenario in which members of a Hamas cell would acquire a stolen car with Israeli plates (“very easy”), don clothes that would make them look Jewish (“put on a kippa”) and drive around the West Bank looking for hitchhikers to snatch.
Israel’s military and its intelligence agency say they have foiled 64 kidnapping plots in the past year, most of them organized by Hamas.
Barak Ben-Zur, a former head of research for Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, said these attempts led to the conclusion that Hamas needed to be subdued.
Some Palestinians say the kidnappings have given the Israelis cover to crack down on Hamas.
“Israel, and especially the ruling party, needs a new war with the Palestinians,” said Nader Said, president of the Arab World for Research and Development, a polling group in Ramallah, West Bank.
“Many Palestinians do not believe the story of the kidnapping. They believe that these children are older. They think they are soldiers or that they were not really kidnapped and it is a conspiracy by Israel,” he said.