By Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH West Bank (Reuters) - Israel decided on Tuesday to widen a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank after troops detained more than 40 members of the Palestinian Islamist group in sweeps conducted in tandem with a search for three missing Jewish teenagers.
The Jewish state accuses Hamas of kidnapping the three youths after they left their religious school in a Jewish settlement in the occupied territory on Thursday. While neither claiming nor denying responsibility, Hamas has commented that abductions were a justified response to the plight of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by its Israeli enemy.
The Israeli army has carried out house-to-house searches, round-ups of suspects and interrogations in Hebron, a Hamas stronghold, and then in other parts of the West Bank, in a mobilisation on a scale not seen in years.
"We are turning Hamas membership into a ticket to hell," Naftali Bennett, a far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, told Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday.
The Palestinian Information Ministry accused Israel of inflicting collective punishment with its West Bank dragnet - a charge echoed by several international human rights groups.
"An entire population is being held hostage to the whims of the Israeli occupation," the Palestinian ministry said.
Israel has said it does not know if Gil-Ad Shaer and U.S.-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, are alive or what their captors' demands might be.
At its meeting on Tuesday, Netanyahu's security cabinet agreed to make more arrests, put up roadblocks and turn Palestinian houses into military observation posts to increase pressure on Hamas, which seeks the Jewish state's destruction.
An Israeli official said ministers had also debated a proposal to deport West Bank Hamas leaders to Gaza.
Earlier, the army said it had detained 41 Hamas militants in overnight raids, raising to more than 200 the number arrested since Friday. Israel officials acknowledged the operation was two-fold - recovering the missing teenagers and weakening Hamas.
HAMAS ARGUES SELF-DEFENSE
Hamas and other militant groups have in the past seized Israelis to trade for jailed Palestinians. Scores of inmates are on hunger strike to protest against being held without charges.
"Regardless of the party which stood behind the (kidnapping) operation, our people have the right to defend themselves and to stand in solidarity with their prisoners," Hamas said in a statement on Tuesday.
Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned both the kidnappings and the Israeli dragnet.
Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser, said the abductions provided an opportunity to target Hamas in operations that could undermine a new Palestinian unity government formed after Abbas reconciled with his Islamist rivals in April following years of feuding. Infuriated by the surprise intra-Palestinian alliance, Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Abbas. "The fragile links between the (Abbas-led Palestinian) Authority and Hamas could become more of a crack," Eiland told Israel Radio, a day after the Islamists condemned as a "knife in the back" PA efforts to help the Israelis locate the teenagers.
Mirroring scenes played out elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers filed through a street of shuttered homes and shops in the town of Jenin on Tuesday, lobbing stun grenades and firing rubber bullets at Palestinians who threw rocks at them.
Israeli and Palestinian security sources said soldiers and police had wounded five Palestinians in Jenin and in confrontations near the cities of Ramallah and Nablus.
Israel showed photographs of what it said were hundreds of weapons, including guns, seized at some of the detainees' homes.
"As long as our boys remain abducted, Hamas will feel pursued, paralyzed and threatened," said Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
Netanyahu has said the recovery efforts are complicated and could prove protracted. Many Israelis have shown solidarity with the teens' families on social media and have held prayer vigils.
One of the youth's mothers, Rachel Fraenkel, thanked her compatriots on a nationally televised broadcast, saying: "We just wish to hug our children home, Naftali, Eyal, Gil-Ad. We love you, we miss you, please be strong, hold on, be strong."
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)