An Israeli military court on Tuesday sentenced a Palestinian man to three life terms in prison for his role in the abduction and killing of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank, an event that contributed to the escalating cycle of violence leading to a 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip over the summer.
Naftali Frenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah were abducted June 12 while hitchhiking from their West Bank school to their homes. Israeli authorities believe they were killed within hours, but it took them more than two weeks to find the bodies, buried in a field under a pile of rocks.
In September, Israeli forces located the two men they believed had carried out the attack, Marwan Kawasmeh and Amer Abu Aysha, in the West Bank city of Hebron. The suspects died in an ensuing gun battle, according to the Israeli army.
Hussam Kawasmeh, who is related to Marwan Kawasmeh, was convicted last week of planning and financing the operation with about $50,000 that he received from Hamas through his brother, Mahmoud Kawasmeh, in Gaza.
According to the indictment, Hussam Kawasmeh bought weapons for the attack, helped bury the bodies, removed evidence from the burial site and provided the suspects with food and water for their escape. He confessed to all charges, the army said.
“This is one of the most severe cases of murder and kidnapping. It majorly affected the security situation,” Lt. Col. Menahem Lieberman, the head of the court panel, said before delivering Kawasmeh’s sentence Tuesday. “The boys’ lives were cut short in a moment, and their families’ lives changed beyond recognition.”
Israeli authorities insisted from the start that the killers were with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. After initially denying any connection to the slayings, Hamas officials conceded that the crime had been committed by members of the group, although they said the men were not operating on instructions from superiors.
Israeli forces launched a massive crackdown on Hamas and other militants in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Palestinians after the abductions. After the teenagers’ bodies were found, Jewish extremists captured and killed a Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem in an apparent revenge attack. The war in Gaza began days later.
In addition to the prison sentence, Hussam Kawasmeh was ordered to pay each of the boys' family about $63,000. His brother, Mahmoud, remains at large, according to Israeli news reports.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles.
For more international news, follow @alexzavis on Twitter