An 18-day search for three Israeli teenagers who vanished while hitchhiking in the West Bank came to a bitter end Monday in an open field, under a small pile of rocks, with the discovery of bodies presumed to be theirs.
The find, which culminated a massive military manhunt, plunged Israel into a state of collective grief and anger, prompting spontaneous candlelight vigils around the country and provoking a threat of retribution from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Saying the three had been “abducted and murdered in cold blood by human animals,” Netanyahu vowed, “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.”
The Palestinian faction, regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, has not claimed responsibility for the teens’ disappearance. The grim conclusion to the manhunt will add to the pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to cut ties with Hamas.
Separately, Israel carried out 34 airstrikes in Gaza early Tuesday, hitting “terror infrastructure” targets across Hamas-controlled territory. Israel Defense Forces spokesman Motti Almoz told Army Radio that the strikes were in response to 18 rockets fired into Israel since late Sunday, not the situation in the West Bank. Almoz said the relatively extensive response in Gaza was meant to convey the message that Israel will not tolerate continued rocket fire.
News of the discovery of the bodies came as Israelis grappled with the fallout from revelations that one of the teenagers had telephoned police shortly after being abducted and that officers had failed to act on the call for hours. “I’ve been kidnapped,” he said, according to Israeli news reports, which also said the sounds of gunshots could be heard later in the call.
After an investigation, four police officials were removed from their posts Monday.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, went missing June 12 as they were hitchhiking home from the yeshiva they attended in the West Bank.
Frenkel was a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen. President Obama issued a statement Monday condemning the deaths “in the strongest possible terms,” while urging “all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.”
According to army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, troops and civilian volunteers discovered the bodies in a field near the Palestinian town of Halhoul.
After initial identification in the field and notification of the families, the bodies were flown by helicopter to the Abu Kabir forensic medicine institute in Tel Aviv. In keeping with Jewish tradition, the families intend to bury the bodies as soon as possible.
The abductors have not been found. A manhunt continues for two suspects named by Israeli intelligence as responsible for the kidnapping: Hamas activists Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Eisheh, who disappeared the day the youths did.
The search for the teens focused on the Hebron area; thousands of troops went door to door, divers descended into cisterns, and civilian volunteers helped soldiers scour caves and pits throughout the mountainous countryside. About 400 Palestinians were detained.
As news of the deaths spread Monday, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, abruptly adjourned its session, canceling all planned voting.
Netanyahu called an urgent meeting of his security Cabinet on Monday night to weigh Israel’s response. As it convened, Netanyahu expressed condolences to the families of the three teenagers. “We are deeply saddened. The entire nation weeps with you,” he said.
Netanyahu did not disclose what measures against Hamas were being considered. The Cabinet met for three hours and adjourned without announcing any decisions. Several members of Netanyahu’s coalition have been calling for a military operation to crush Hamas, as well as the imposition of the death penalty for terrorists.
Israel has used the death penalty only once, against convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
“There is no forgiveness for murderers of children,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. “Now is a time for actions, not words.”
Israel frequently responds to attacks with increased settlement construction. Labor lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich warned that would “cast a match into an already burning barrel.”
Despite political differences, an outpouring of condolences for the families and condemnation of the killings came from across the political spectrum.
Israelis held spontaneous vigils throughout the country Monday night. Many gathered to light candles and sing together at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where tens of thousands had gathered only the night before with hopes for the teens’ safe return.
In the West Bank, a spokesman for Abbas said he called an urgent meeting of the Palestinian leadership for Tuesday to discuss “the latest political developments and implications of recent events.”
Abbas has strongly condemned the kidnapping and instructed his security forces to assist in recovery efforts. His comments won appreciation from Netanyahu as well as the families of the abducted youths. However, they placed him at odds with many Palestinians, as well as with Hamas, with which he recently reconciled to form a short-term national accord government pending elections next year.
“Abbas is in a very delicate situation now,” said Shaul Shay of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya. Caught between condemning the killing and maintaining the fragile partnership, “bridging this impossible situation will not be an easy task” for Abbas, Shay told reporters.
Netanyahu has repeatedly urged Abbas to undo his pact with Hamas, which contributed to the scuttling of peace talks being brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
As intelligence obtained during the operation narrowed the search to the area of Halhoul near Hebron, clashes broke out Monday afternoon between Palestinians and soldiers in the area the bodies were found. Israeli intelligence believes the two Hamas fugitives thought to be responsible are hiding in the area.
Israeli police moved to heightened alert to counter any acts of reprisal for the teens’ deaths, media reported.
According to Israeli media, the three teens may have sealed their fate with the phone call to police. Authorities are said to believe they were killed during the call or shortly after.
Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.