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With Israeli teens missing, Palestinian unity frays

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - The disappearance of three Jewish youths in the occupied West Bank has rocked reconciliation between Palestinian political factions and risks sinking a new unity government, analysts and officials have said.

Israel has accused the Islamist group Hamas of orchestrating the kidnapping of the three teenagers last Thursday and has detained at least 240 Palestinians during a massive search mission that has so far failed to uncover the missing trio.

Hamas has refused to confirm or deny any involvement in the abduction, but many Palestinians believe that only it has the knowledge or network needed to snatch three young men and keep them hidden from view for almost a week.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas roundly condemned the kidnappers on Wednesday and promised to hold to account those responsible. His words in turn were denounced by Hamas and other factions, who accused him of betraying the national cause.

"Whoever did this wanted to destroy us," Abbas said from Saudi Arabia in a speech broadcast on Palestinian television.

"We are coordinating with (Israel) in order to return those youths, because they are human beings and we want to protect the lives of human beings," said Abbas.

Hamas has always decried cooperation between Israel and Abbas's security forces, and it was quick to criticize his latest comments, which carried additional weight as they were delivered directly to an Arabic audience, not via Western media.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas's words were "harmful to Palestinian interests", although he said his group remained committed to a reconciliation deal forged in April that led to the formation of a unity government earlier this month.

RECONCILIATION ACCORD

The accord was aimed at ending seven years of division that saw the occupied West Bank under the partial control of Abbas and his Western-backed Palestinian Authority, while the nearby Gaza Strip was governed by Hamas.

"The fact that nobody has yet claimed responsibility for any kidnapping might be the only thing that is preventing the reconciliation from collapsing," said Gaza political analyst, Hamza Abu Shanab.

A Palestinian Authority official, who declined to be named, said the unity deal called for peaceful struggle against Israel. "The partnership may become difficult if it turns out (Hamas) is behind the disappearance of the three settlers," he said.

Hani Al-Masri, a West Bank political analyst, said further unity moves appeared to be out of the question in the current climate of distrust and anger, with Abbas clearly feeling deliberately wrong-footed.

"If Hamas stands behind the operation, we would not see any more reconciliation measures, regardless of whether the decision behind (the kidnapping) was made by the leadership as a whole, or by individual cells," Masri told Reuters.

Some commentators have speculated whether Hamas militants might have carried out the abduction without the knowledge or consent of political leaders concentrated mainly in Gaza.

PRISONER SWAPS

Although they face the wrath of Israel, Hamas would stand to gain among ordinary Palestinians if it owned up to the abduction, particularly in Gaza, where its standing has eroded over the past year in the face of growing economic hardship.

"If Hamas stands behind the operation, it will regain its popularity as a resistance movement and the Palestinian Authority will lose out," said Masri.

The last time Hamas kidnapped an Israeli was in 2006, when it seized conscript soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid from Gaza. It eventually released him in 2011 in return for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, who were welcomed home as heroes.

Many Palestinians hope that Israel will be forced into another mass swap to free the three seminary students, and Hamas said Abbas's condemnation was a blow to those held in Israeli jails, dozens of whom are on an extended hunger strike.

It is "lethal to the mental spirit of thousands of prisoners who are facing slow death inside the prisons of Israeli occupation," said Abu Zuhri.

Mohammed Dahlan, a powerful political foe of Abbas who lives in exile in the Gulf, also joined the war of words, accusing the president of demeaning Palestinians by working with Israel.

"A president who is silent when he should speak up and speaks nonsense about the holiness of coordination or security slavery to Israel should stay silent," he said in a statement, underlining the domestic strains facing Abbas.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Tom Heneghan)

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