Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal on Monday praised the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers as a heroic act but denied having any information on the abduction.

In a lengthy interview with Al-Jazeera on Monday evening, Mashaal insisted that Gil-ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, abducted while hitchhiking in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem, were “settlers and soldiers in the Israeli army.”

“No one claimed responsibility so far. I can neither confirm [Hamas's responsibility] nor deny it,” Mashaal said, quickly adding that the circumstances of the kidnapping were more important than the perpetrators.

“Blessed be the hands that captured them,” Mashaal said. “This is a Palestinian duty, the responsibility of the Palestinian people. Our prisoners must be freed; not Hamas’s prisoners — the prisoners of the Palestinian people.”

The “disappearance,” as he termed it, took place in the West Bank, an area he said was considered occupied “even by the United States.” Secondly, the three were not “youths, as Israel calls them, but first and foremost settlers … and not even regular settlers, but armed ones.”

Mashaal promptly produced a photocopied page, reproduced from a viral Palestinian Facebook post juxtaposing the photo of Naftali Fraenkel with that of Israeli “Big Brother” contestant Itai Wallach posing with blindfolded Palestinians during his military service. Mashaal claimed the two were one and the same.

A viral Facebook image claiming kidnapped teenager Naftali Fraenkel is actually a soldier (photo credit: Facebook image)

A viral  Palestinian Facebook image claiming kidnapped teenager Naftali Fraenkel is actually a soldier (photo credit: Facebook image)

“This is a very important aspect which should be mentioned,” Mashaal said. “They [the three youths] are combatants. Settlers in the West Bank are a disaster … they burn agricultural produce, kill children by running them over, invade homes, burn mosques and attack churches.”

Mashaal blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the abduction, lambasting his insensitivity to the plight of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike.

The Al-Jazeera interview will make it impossible for Abbas to continue cooperating with Mashaal if Hamas’s involvement in the kidnapping is proved

“I ask the families of these three soldier-settlers: Had Netanyahu heard the voice of these hunger strikers … would the Palestinian situation be so stressed? … had Netanyahu not provoked us in Jerusalem by Judaizing it, would Palestinians be as angry?”

“The one who lost these three [youths] is Netanyahu by ignoring the Palestinian suffering and provoking our people,” Mashaal said.

Throughout the interview, Mashaal was careful in his attempt to both justify armed resistance and at the same time avoid directly confronting PA President Mahmoud Abbas, his partner in a Palestinian unity government declared June 2.

But the Al-Jazeera interview will make it impossible for Abbas to continue cooperating with Mashaal if Hamas’s involvement in the kidnapping is proved. Hamas, Mashaal asserted, is “one movement” in which the armed wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, is subordinate to the political bureau even if it is not directly ordered to carry out specific operations.

“I, Khaled Mashaal, and my brothers in the political bureau, claim full responsibility for any action carried out by any member of the movement,” he said. “But Hamas is not a small shop; it’s a large movement, and every person knows his role in it.”

Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, November 2011 (photo credit: AP/Office of Khaled Mashaal)

Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, November 2011 (photo credit: AP/Office of Khaled Mashaal)

The ideological rift between Hamas and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority concerning Israel, kept so far on the back burner, is becoming harder to hide. Abbas and other Fatah officials have repeatedly declared that Hamas had acquiesced to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. But Mashaal asserted that the contrary was true; that in fact Fatah had agreed in the 2011 Cairo reconciliation document to releasing prisoners “by all means.”

“It is unacceptable for any Palestinian official, big or small, to say ‘if it is proved,'” Mashaal charged, referring to PA threats to end the unity pact if Hamas is demonstrated to be behind the kidnapping.

“It is illogical for us to warn or threaten each other. Suppose that it is Hamas … suppose that it’s a member of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades or the PA security agencies … will we condemn ourselves?”

An Israeli defense official last week charged Mashaal with possibly giving the green light to the kidnapping. In a speech Mashaal delivered last month in Doha, Qatar, where he resides, he declared that Hamas’s military wing would “provide a response” to the plight of hunger-striking Hamas political prisoners in Israeli jails.