Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday called for the return of the three Israeli teenagers abducted in the West Bank last week, saying the Palestinian Authority was helping Israel search for the teens.
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"The missing settlers in the West Bank are human beings like us, and we must look for them and return them to their families," Abbas told foreign ministers of Muslim states gathered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in his first direct public comments about the abduction. "We are making an effort to locate the youths."
The kidnappers are "seeking the destruction of the [Palestinian] Authority," Abbas said, adding that the Hamas-Fatah unity government "believes in the popular struggle" and that its platform is the same as that of the Palestine Liberation Organization platform.
Although Abbas called the teens "settlers," not all of their families live in settlements. The teens are, however, students in West Bank yeshivas, from which they were trying to get home when they hitched a ride Thursday with the men who would turn out to be their abductors.
Though Abbas said the PA was attempting to assist Israel, he also said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "exploiting" the kidnapping, using it as an excuse to launch a major military operation in the West Bank, particularly the Hebron area.
An Israel Defense Forces deployment of this magnitude has not been seen in the West Bank in years, a high-ranking IDF officer said Tuesday. The focus of activities is on the Hebron area, and they're mostly directed against Hamas, though other groups are also targeted.
Abbas had previously condemned the attack in a press release issued by his office, but Wednesday's statement was the first time he spoke publicly about the abduction.
"Both sides should refrain from violence," he said in the statement. He lauded the Palestinian security forces for their efforts to "stop the PA from being dragged into disorder and prevent the factions from taking advantage of the situation for non-nationalistic purposes," and said he would continue the struggle to free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The release of Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner swap is thought to be the primary motivation for Palestinian militants to abduct Israelis.
The high-ranking IDF officer said Tuesday that Hamas had an opportunity to save itself via the Palestinian reconciliation deal, but that it shot itself in the foot.
"What Hamas is considering a brilliant operation will turn Pyrrhic," said the officer. The security establishment believes the kidnapping could lead to a rift between Hamas and the West Bank, since "the Palestinians understand terror and civilians are separate."
Abbas called Netanyahu on Monday, and Netanyahu told him he expected Abbas to help return the abducted teens and catch their kidnappers.
"The abductors from Hamas came from an area under Palestinian Authority control and returned to PA-controlled territory," Netanyahu said. "It's important to understand the consequences of the unity with Hamas – it's bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the area.