JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister said Monday that it could take time to locate three teenagers who are believed to have been abducted by Palestinian militants in the West Bank — even as Israeli forces stepped up a frantic search for the youths.
In a televised statement, Netanyahu told the public that he remains focused on bringing the teens home safely. But for the first time since the crisis erupted last week, he warned the search could drag on.
"We are in the midst of a complex operation. We need to be prepared for the possibility that it will take time," he said.
The three teens disappeared in the West Bank late Thursday night while hitchhiking home near the Palestinian city of Hebron.
Israeli forces have closed roads, searched homes and rounded up dozens of Palestinians since then in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to find them. On Monday, Israeli troops rounded up dozens more senior Hamas activists and killed a Palestinian in a clash with stone throwers.
Netanyahu has accused Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction, of being behind the abduction. Hamas has denied involvement.
He said Israel has arrested more than 100 Hamas activists and is "carrying out additional operations."
The abductions came at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions were already running high over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' formation of a unity government that is backed by Hamas.
With senior Israeli officials now calling for a crackdown on Hamas and perhaps even the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by Abbas, there is growing concern of a major escalation.
Netanyahu said he "expected" the international community to condemn the abductions and support Israel's response.
It's not clear how far Netanyahu will go in trying to dismantle the Hamas organization, considering the risk this might further destabilize the region. Despite Netanyahu's verbal attacks against Abbas, he does not want to see a collapse of the pragmatic Palestinian leader's self-rule government in the West Bank.
Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers were meeting Monday. The government is reportedly weighing a series of measures, including the deportation of Hamas leaders from the West Bank to Gaza, where Hamas remains the de facto power despite the unity deal.