The United States on Wednesday praised Palestinian President Abbas for condemning the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, and called on both Israel and the Palestinians to show restraint as Israel tightened its grip on the West Bank in search for the boys.
Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Ifrach, went missing late Thursday from a popular hitchhiking spot near the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank.
Abbas lashed out earlier Wednesday against the culprits behind the kidnapping, saying: "The three teens are human beings like us and they should be returned to their families… Those who carried out the kidnapping want to destroy us."
Abbas' comments quickly drew condemnation from Hamas: "These comments are based on the Zionist narrative," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
However, US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki praised Abbas comments, saying: "We were encouraged by President Abbas' strong statement
A source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office belittled Abbas' comments, saying "(Abbas's) comments will be judged according to the efforts made by the Palestinian Authority to return the kidnapped boys to their homes, and the true test of his comments would be canceling the (unity) deal with Hamas."
Israeli troops have pressed their biggest arrest operation in years, imposing a tight lockdown on huge swathes of the West Bank in the hunt for the three boys kidnapped six days ago.
Since the Israeli searches began early Friday, troops have arrested 240 Palestinians, searched more than 800 locations and raided 10 Hamas-run institutions, the army said.
"We recognize this is an incredibly sensitive and difficult circumstance on the ground, and we feel all sides should exercise restraint," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
"We urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid the types of steps that could destabilize the situation," she warned.
US officials have been in touch with both Israelis and Palestinians since the kidnappings.
"We know this is a difficult time, obviously, on the ground,” she said, adding Washington was urging continued security cooperation between the two sides.
Psaki also confirmed Wednesday that Frenkel is also a US citizen and said US officials had been in touch with his family.
West Bank op
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, the IDF 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.
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.
AFP, the Associated Press and Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report