Ramallah, West Bank • Thousands of Israeli soldiers have been combing the West Bank inch by inch, searching homes, crawling into caves and even pumping wells to try to find three teens who Israel says were abducted by the Islamic militant Hamas.
But nearly two weeks into Israel’s most extensive military operation in the West Bank in a decade, there’s no sign of the missing.
With the disappearance unresolved, Israel has been using the searches to try to dismantle Hamas’ operations in the West Bank. Israel says it has delivered a painful blow to Hamas, arresting 270 Hamas activists and raiding more than 60 businesses and institutions linked to the group.
But in broadening the goals of the campaign, Israel has invited growing criticism, following the initial condemnation of the abductions by Palestinian leaders and the international community.
Palestinian officials say the sweep is boosting the Islamic militants’ popularity at the expense of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. They say Israeli forces have needlessly escalated tensions, targeting sites with tenuous links to Hamas while sparking protests that have left four Palestinians dead — including a teenager.
They also argue that after years of Israeli and Palestinian crackdowns, Hamas was already weak when the new sweep began.
"Israel has no real targets," said Maj. Gen. Adnan Damiri of the Palestinian security forces. "Israel is doing a show."
In Israel, some asked why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t come forward with what he claims is "unequivocal" proof of Hamas involvement in the June 12 abduction of three Jewish seminary students in the West Bank.
Others warned that pushing too hard could also endanger a key Israeli interest — continued security coordination with Abbas’ forces.
Netanyahu has demanded that Abbas dismantle the Hamas-backed unity government he formed earlier this month.
Abbas has said Israel has presented no proof of Hamas involvement in the kidnapping and that the unity government is following his political program.
"After the Americans and Europeans supported the unity government, Israel used this abduction to weaken and embarrass the Palestinian Authority," Damiri said.
In the international community, there were first signs of concern about possible overreach by Israel.
Israeli must avoid "punishing individuals for offenses they have not personally committed," senior U.N. official Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council Monday.
As part of the battle for international public opinion, the parents of the missing teens spoke to U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday.
Rachelle Fraenkel, mother of 16-year-old Naftali, said she was grateful for the worldwide condemnation of the kidnappings, but that "much more can be done and should be done by many" to bring the teens home.
She told the council about the missing — that her son plays guitar, another youth loves sports and the third is an amateur pastry chef.
She also shared the parents’ anguish.
"My son texted me, he said he is on his way home. And then he is gone. Every mother’s nightmare is waiting and waiting endlessly for her child to come home," said Fraenkel who, like Naftali, has dual Israeli-American citizenship.
In Israel, the fate of the teens has become an obsession, with intensive media coverage and prayer vigils. It was reminiscent of the aftermath of the capture of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, by Hamas-allied militants in Gaza in 2006. Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit in 2011, dozens of whom have seen been re-arrested, some in the current sweep.
There were signs Tuesday that the West Bank campaign is winding down ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.Next Page >
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