RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president on Wednesday defended his policy of security cooperation with Israel in a politically risky speech to senior Arab officials, even as Israeli forces escalated their most extensive West Bank crackdown in years in response to the apparent abduction of three Israeli teenagers.
President Mahmoud Abbas’ comments were quickly condemned at home and shined a light on one of his most controversial policies — working with the Israeli military to keep the Hamas militant group, which Israel accuses of carrying out the kidnapping, in check.
The three youths, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, who disappeared late Thursday while hitchhiking home from Jewish seminaries in the West Bank. Accusing Hamas of being behind the apparent abduction, Israel has launched a widespread crackdown on the group, arresting scores of members while conducting a feverish manhunt for the missing youths.
In a speech to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, Abbas condemned the kidnapping, saying it had caused heavy damage to the Palestinians and that his forces were helping search for the missing teens.
“We are still looking and searching to find out who carried out such an act,” Abbas said. “He who committed such an act wants to destroy us.”
Abbas said he hoped to rescue the teens “because these youths are human beings, and we want to protect human lives.” While accusing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of exploiting the crisis to inflict pain on the Palestinians, he also said the coordination with Israel is a Palestinian interest as well.
“We don’t want to go back to chaos and destruction, as we did in the second (Palestinian) uprising,” he told the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “I say it openly and frankly. We will not go back to an uprising that will destroy us.”
His comments were remarkable because of his audience and because security coordination is widely unpopular among Palestinians. They also put additional strains on the new unity government that Abbas formed earlier this month with backing from Hamas.
The government was meant to end a rift stemming from Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip from Abbas seven years ago. But tensions remain, and Hamas is still in control of Gaza, while Abbas governs from the West Bank.
Abbas’ comments quickly drew condemnation from Hamas. “These comments are based on the Zionist narrative,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
In Washington, Abbas’ words won praise from the State Department. “We were encouraged by President Abbas’ strong statement to the Arab and Islamic foreign ministers today in Saudi Arabia,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
She said the U.S. has been in touch with both sides, urging restraint and continued security coordination.
Coordination between the sides was strengthened after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, leaving Abbas only in control of the autonomous areas of the West Bank.
Abbas subsequently launched a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, to prevent a Hamas-led coup there. In the past seven years, forces loyal to Abbas have shut down many Hamas-linked charities and schools and have tried to dry up sources of Hamas funding.
Hamas, an offshoot of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, is deeply rooted in Palestinian society. The movement’s political goal is an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including the territory that now makes up Israel. Israel and its Western allies consider Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis, a terrorist group. Late Wednesday, the Israeli military said five rockets were fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel. One rocket struck a house in southern Israel, causing damage but no injuries.
Early Thursday, Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on “terror activity” sites in Gaza. It said “direct hits” were confirmed. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The relationship between Israel and Abbas’ security forces is awkward at times, but ultimately beneficial for both sides. Experts say the coordination includes meetings, some sharing of intelligence and communication about what each side is doing. The forces do not conduct joint operations, and Israel does not seek permission before sending soldiers into Palestinian areas.
“They don’t operate out of our interest, but they operate out of their own interests,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman. “We have a mutual concern with Hamas terrorism.”
A sign of the security coordination in recent days has been the relative calm in the West Bank as Israeli troops entered Palestinian cities that are nominally under Palestinian self-rule control. The main area of the operation has been Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.
Under the rules of security coordination, Israeli forces notify their Palestinian counterparts when they plan to enter a Palestinian-controlled area. The Palestinian troops usually withdraw to their barracks and stand back as Israeli forces carry out their missions, including arrest raids. Officers from both sides also meet or talk on the phone frequently to exchange information.
Palestinian critics have accused Abbas of turning the Palestinians into security sub-contractors of Israel.
Ghassan Khatib, a former spokesman of the West Bank-based self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, said Abbas firmly believes another uprising would be as harmful to the Palestinians as it would to Israel. Several thousand people, most of them Palestinians, died in an uprising against Israeli occupation a decade ago, and Palestinians lost international support as militants carried out bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis.
“The two sides have a common interest in trying to prevent a return to violence,” said Khatib. “Unfortunately, not many Palestinians are courageous enough to say what he said.”
Others said Abbas will likely pay a political price for going so openly against public opinion.
Analyst Hani al-Masri said Abbas was apparently trying to secure continued Western support for the Palestinian unity government with his comments.
“But the fact is that the legitimacy of the authority and preserving it comes only from the satisfaction of the people, not from the U.S. and Israel,” al-Masri said.
The Israeli crackdown is the most extensive military ground operation in more than five years. Thousands of soldiers have fanned out across the West Bank, searching some 800 locations and arresting more than 250 Palestinians, most of them Hamas members.
Israel has not presented any firm evidence proving Hamas involvement. The group has praised the kidnappings, but not claimed responsibility.
Israel said it is using the search for the missing to deliver a painful new blow to the remaining Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. In addition to the arrests, Israeli troops raided 10 civilian institutions allegedly linked to the group, the military said.
The kidnapping crisis has spread to the Internet. Israel students have launched a campaign that has gone viral called “Bring Back Our Boys” to draw attention to their fate.
A Palestinian group has responded with its own campaign mocking the kidnappings by showing people holding up three fingers, one per each missing teen. The anonymously owned page has over 3,900 “likes” and is named 3shalaleet, a word play on the name of an Israeli soldier once kidnapped by Hamas.
Robert Singer, CEO of the World Jewish Congress, condemned the Palestinian campaign. “These are the same people who send out their own children strapped with suicide belts to blow up cafes, after all,” he said.
Federman reported from Jerusalem. Haitham Hamad in Ramallah and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed reporting.