As the search for three Jewish teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank continued into its fifth day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday canceled a trip to Australia, set to take place in two weeks’ time.
Netanyahu said that in light of “recent developments,” he would remain in the country at least until the end of the month, Channel 2 reported. An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu had canceled the visit to Australia for a number of reasons, but did not specify whether the kidnapping was one of them. He said the prime minister had considered postponing the visit even before the abduction took place.
The Prime Minister’s Office had not yet scheduled an alternative date, the official added.
Australia is one of Israel’s most prominent allies, and recently declared that it was no longer going to refer to East Jerusalem — where Israel claims sovereignty — as “occupied” territory.
On Monday, the prime minister stated that the ongoing operation to return the abducted teenagers may take time.
“We are in the middle of a complicated operation and we need to be prepared [for the fact] that it will be longlasting,” Netanyahu said, speaking outside IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv, standing alongside Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
“At the moment we are focusing on one goal: the retrieval of our youths, our youths who were taken. We are also operating against Hamas,” he said and added that there will be “serious consequences” for the abductions.
Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frankel, 16, and Gil-ad Shaar, 16, were kidnapped late Thursday night. They were last seen at a hitchhiking post in the Etzion Bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem at around 10:25 p.m. The Israeli government has pointed the finger at Hamas and said that it holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for their well-being.
Officials have said they are working on the assumption the teens are alive, but the fact that five days have elapsed without a sign of life is raising grave concerns.
Overnight Monday, the IDF conducted a wave of mass arrests across the West Bank, apprehending 41 Hamas activists, a senior officer said Tuesday. Among the detainees was the director of Hamas’s television station.
IDF activity on Tuesday expanded across all of the West Bank in an effort to hamstring Hamas’s financial and operational infrastructure, an official said.
Israel has arrested some 200 Palestinians since the three teens were seized.
Most of those rounded up were from Hamas, including activists and political leaders, among them 10 members of the non-functioning Palestinian parliament. Israel’s security cabinet discussed further steps Monday, including the possible deportation of Hamas leaders from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is in control.