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Gun battles flare up in West Bank

Israeli soldiers are looking for three missing teenagers.

The army says more than 150 Palestinians have been arrested in the search for three youngsters snatched from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank on June 12. Picture: AFP.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - Israeli forces traded gunfire with Palestinians on Thursday, the military said, in the fiercest street battles in the occupied West Bank since a search began for three Israeli teenagers missing for a week.

Hospital officials said three Palestinians suffered bullet wounds in the overnight clashes in Jenin, a militant stronghold and the scene of deadly fighting during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. There were no reported Israeli casualties.

In a statement, the military said about 300 Palestinians, including some who "hurled explosives and opened fire", confronted soldiers who entered Jenin looking for the three seminary students.

Israel said the Hamas Islamist group abducted them last Thursday as they were hitchhiking near a Jewish settlement.

"The soldiers responded with live fire, identifying hits," the statement said. It said 30 'terror suspects' were detained in the West Bank, bringing to 280 the number of Palestinians taken into custody over the past week.

Israel said its West Bank operation is two-fold: to find Gil-Ad Shaer and US-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19; and to deal a substantial blow to Hamas, a group dedicated to its destruction.

A statement issued by the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of using the teenagers' disappearance as "a pretext to impose tough punishment against our people and besiege them" in violation of international humanitarian law.

Israeli raids spread from house-to-house searches in Hebron, a flashpoint town in the area where the three went missing, to raids across the West Bank of institutions believed to provide funding and other support for Hamas.

"The policy of collective punishment conducted by the occupation government against our people and our land requires condemnation by the whole world," the Palestinian presidential statement said.

As part of the crackdown, Israel said on Thursday it was banning a British-based charity from operating in the occupied West Bank, accusing Islamic Relief Worldwide of being a source of funding for the Palestinian Hamas Islamist movement.

Security experts expect the frustration of ordinary Palestinians at Israeli restrictions in the West Bank to mount as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is due to begin on 28 and 29 June.

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