Israel widened its military operation against Hamas on Tuesday – including a retaliatory strike against Gaza rocketeers – but warned that it may take time to find the three yeshiva students whom the terrorist group kidnapped late Thursday night.
“We need to be prepared for the possibility that it may take time,” said Netanyahu to a nation waiting for the imminent return of the teens.
Since Friday, the IDF has scoured the West Bank for the youths, focusing primarily on Hebron and the wider Judea area. It has arrested some 150 Palestinians, most of whom are Hamas members, including the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Aziz Dwik.
The IDF’s operation to track down the missing Israelis is “getting deeper,” one source stated Sunday. The IDF, meanwhile, continues to maintain closure over southern Palestinian areas in the West Bank, particularly Hebron.
Israel early Monday morning also executed a limited air strike against military targets in Gaza, in response to Palestinian rocket fire against the southern city of Ashkelon late Sunday night.
“In recent days we have also seen an attempt to open an additional front in the Gaza Strip. We have taken strong action in response to this firing.
If need be, we will take even stronger action,” Netanyahu said. He spoke at a joint press conference at the IDF Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem.
To the families of the three captive teens, Netanyahu said, “I and all Israelis support you at this time. We are making every effort to bring the boys home.”
Netanyahu noted that he had just spoken with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“I told him that I appreciate the important and cogent thing he said, both in condemnation of this reprehensible act and regarding Israel’s right to defend itself,” Netanyahu said.
One of the captives, Naftali Fraenkel, has dual Israeli-US citizenship.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington that the US has offered to help Israel locate the teens.
Netanyahu told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday that he also expects his assistance in securing the release of the captives.
Abbas had phoned Netanyahu to condemn the kidnapping. It was the first direct conversation between them in months.
Following the conversation, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement saying Netanyahu made clear that Abbas needs to understand the consequences of his partnership with Hamas.
“It is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and bad for the region,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu told Abbas that he could have peace with Israel or peace with Hamas, “but not with both.”
The conversation came as Abbas issued his first public condemnation of the kidnapping of the three teenagers. He also condemned Israeli military action over the last three days.
In addition, he praised the Palestinian security apparatus for its work in maintaining quiet and stability over the last few days, and called for everyone to refrain from violence.
“This incident exposes the true face of the terrorism that we are fighting against,” Netanyahu told Abbas. “Terrorists abduct innocent Israeli children while we save the lives of ill Palestinian children in our hospitals.
This is the difference between our humanitarian policy and the murderous terrorism that is attacking us.”
Netanyahu stressed to Abbas that the Hamas kidnappers came from areas under the PA’s control, and returned to those same areas. This is a point that Israel is stressing because of arguments being raised that the PA cannot be held responsible for the kidnappings, since the attack occurred in an area under Israeli control.
Israel’s position is that what is relevant is not where the attack took place, but where the attack originated, and that the terrorists set out from areas under PA control.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office would not say whether a follow-up Netanyahu-Abbas conversation is planned.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials are defining the current situation as a “pivotal point.”
“Many contradictions in the Hamas-Fatah unity pact are coming to the fore now,” one official said. “If anyone had illusions that this government would be good for moderation, it is clear that the opposite is the case.”
The official said that Jerusalem was hoping that other key actors in the world would also recognize this as “pivotal moment” and be more “realistic” about the Hamas-Fatah unity pact, as well as about the interim government backed by Hamas, which most of the world – including the US – has said it would work with.
Netanyahu has charged that support for the unity Palestinian government emboldened Hamas to act against Israel.
In his public address on Monday night, he urged the international community to condemn the attack. The European Union is among those that have not spoken out.
“I expect all responsible elements in the international community – some of whom rush to condemn us for any construction in this place or for enclosing a balcony in Gilo – to strongly condemn this reprehensible and deplorable act of abducting three youths. Whoever opposes terrorism needs to condemn terrorism wherever it is perpetrated. I expect other countries to join in these condemnations and to support the State of Israel’s legitimate and necessary acts of self-defense,” Netanyahu said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, on a 10-day visit to Africa, called on the public to stand unified at this time behind the security forces searching for the three teens, and refrain from criticism of the victims, the police and the security forces.
“My heart is with the kidnapped children.
There is nothing more infuriating than blaming these youth or their families by saying that the abductions happened because they chose to study in a yeshiva in Gush Etzion [beyond the Green Line], or because they dared to hitchhike in a place where there is no public transportation available all the time,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook page.
“According to this logic it would be possible to say that those who came to the Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, or the people who sat at Cafe Sbarro in Jerusalem, or the American victims who worked in the Twin Towers are responsible for their own deaths,” he wrote.
Liberman said that in all these cases, as in the current kidnapping, those responsible were the perpetrators who set out to kill, and they “must be fought with full force.”
“Terrorism is terrorism, and it does not distinguish between New York, Netanya or Gush Etzion,” Liberman wrote.
The foreign minister said that it is not helpful to look for other people to blame for the kidnapping.
“Drawing conclusions about how the teens acted, or how the police or security forces responded, should be delayed until after this kidnapping event is resolved.”
He also criticized deals for the release of terrorists as gestures of goodwill as part of a negotiating process with the Palestinians, saying that Israel always loses in such deals and the terrorist organizations always
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.