Jerusalem: Israel stepped up efforts to crush Hamas in the West Bank on Tuesday as the hunt for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by the Islamist movement entered its fifth day.
Thousands of Israel troops engaged in the search for the youths turned their attention during the night to the northern West Bank city of Nablus and surrounding area, arresting 41 Palestinians, the army said.
So far, Israel has arrested around 200 Palestinians, most of them Hamas members, as it conducts a vast search operation for the students, two of them minors.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused militants from the Islamist movement of kidnapping the youths last week.
"We are here in the midst of a complex operation. We need to be prepared for the possibility that it may take time. This is a serious event and there will be serious consequences," Netanyahu said on Monday evening.
Israel has said it holds Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas responsible for the safe return of the three, with Netanyahu phoning him to demand his help in the search efforts in what was their first direct political contact since 2012.
So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility, and Hamas has dismissed Israel`s accusations as "stupid".At a meeting of the Israeli security cabinet on Monday, ministers decided to expand moves against Hamas in order to smash its political and social infrastructure in the West Bank, officials said.
"As long as our boys remain abducted, Hamas will feel pursued, paralysed and threatened," said Lieutenant Peter Lerner, the military`s official spokesman.
"We are committed to resolving the kidnapping and debilitating Hamas terrorist capacities, its infrastructure and its recruiting institutions," he said in a statement.
A series of punitive steps aimed at decapitating Hamas in the West Bank were discussed on Monday by ministers, who examined the possibility of banishing its senior members to Gaza and demolishing their West Bank homes, Israeli media reports said.
Ministers were reportedly meeting again on Tuesday.
"Israel has decided to perform a root canal to uproot everything green in the West Bank," said army radio, referring to the colour representing Hamas.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who was at the meeting, told the radio Israel had decided to "dramatically" change its approach to the Islamist movement.
"We will bring about a situation in which Hamas people will become a nuisance for the Palestinian population, and that their presence in Judaea and Samaria (the West Bank) will cause harm everywhere," he said. "In other words we will turn membership in Hamas into an entry ticket to hell."
Writing in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot, Alex Fishman said the kidnapping had created a "one-time operational opportunity" which Israel would use "to castrate" Hamas and suppress its "strongholds in Palestinian Authority territory to the greatest extent possible."
Pundits said Israel was also seeking to bring about the collapse of a newly-formed Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas, the firstfruits of a reconciliation deal between rival leaders in the West Bank and Gaza which has been furiously denounced by the Netanyahu government.
"The purpose of the Israeli actions ... is to drive a wedge between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and stop the reconciliation process that began some two months ago," wrote Amos Harel in Haaretz newspaper.
By crushing Hamas`s infrastructure, it would weaken the movement ahead of Palestinian elections which under the unity deal are supposed to take place before the end of the year, Fishman said.
"Removing the political leadership from the West Bank is supposed to weaken Hamas in advance of the Palestinian presidential elections," he said.
But as the manhunt entered its fifth day, commentators voiced concern about growing reports of clashes around the West Bank, sparking fears that an already tense situation could rapidly escalate.
On Monday, a 19-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by troops during clashes in Jalazoun camp north of Ramallah. And during the night, troops shot and seriously wounded a Palestinian who was trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement in the same area, military radio said.
In Gaza, the Israeli air force carried out a fourth straight night of air strikes after militants fired more rockets over the border.