JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli troops rearrested 51 former Palestinian prisoners, the military said Wednesday as it pressed on with a furious search for three missing Israeli teens believed to have been abducted in the West Bank.
Israel believes Hamas was behind the abduction of the teens, who disappeared last week on the way home from a religious seminary, and has intensified a clampdown on the militant group.
The 51 rearrested prisoners were part of a group of 1,027 Palestinians released in 2011 from Israeli prisons in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006.
They were rearrested overnight, along with 14 other Palestinians, bringing the total number of those arrested since the teens' disappearance to 240, according to army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the arrests carry "an important message" and that the military operation would "continue with the aim of returning the abducted youths."
He has also used the incident to try to discredit the new Palestinian unity government, which has Hamas backing, and has called on the international community to urge Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to end his unity deal with Hamas.
Since the swap in 2011, Palestinian militants have called for more kidnappings of Israelis in efforts to release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Israel has not provided proof of Hamas' involvement in the teens' disappearance, but Gilad Erdan, an Israeli minister, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that Israel knows which Hamas cell was responsible. He did not elaborate.
Hamas has praised the kidnapping, but not claimed responsibility.
Since the teens disappeared, Israeli soldiers have searched 800 locations in the West Bank and carried out operations against 10 Hamas civilian institutions there, including raiding a Hamas radio station overnight, Lerner said.
"These actions are already striking a substantial blow to Hamas infrastructure, institutions, and operatives," Lerner added.
There has been no sign of life from the missing teens or any ransom or other demands from their purported kidnappers. Lerner said the army is continuing to impose restrictions on movement in the Hebron region in an effort to prevent the abductors from taking the three out of the West Bank.
Prayer vigils and round-the-clock media coverage have followed the teens' disappearance.