The bodies of three young Jewish settlers who went missing near Hebron two weeks ago have been found near the city in the occupied West Bank, security officials said Monday.
The search for the teens, who disappeared on June 12, has become a national obsession for Israel, setting off a frantic manhunt and large crackdown on the Hamas militant group.
“I was filled with deep sadness upon hearing of the murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah by Hamas terrorists,” deputy defence minister Danny Danon said in a statement that called for an operation aimed at “eradicating Hamas”.
The bodies were found buried in a field near the village of Halhul, near the location where the teens disappeared.
The inner Israeli cabinet held an emergency meeting Monday evening to discuss the matter.
Yifrah, 19, Shaer, 16, and Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, disappeared while hitchhiking home near the West Bank city of Hebron late at night on June 12 and were never heard from again.
Despite the dangers, hitchhiking is common among Israelis travelling in and out of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Buried under rocks
The Israeli military and the Shin Bet security agency announced late Monday that the bodies had been found. “The bodies are currently going through forensic identification. The families of the abducted teens have been notified,” the army said.
Binyamin Proper, who was among the civilian volunteers that found the bodies, told Channel 2 TV that a member of the search party “saw something suspicious on the ground, plants that looked out of place, moved them and moved some rocks and then found the bodies. We realised it was them and we called the army.”
Israel accused Hamas of being behind the disappearances and launched a frantic manhunt throughout the West Bank, arresting nearly 400 Hamas operatives in the process. Last week, Israel identified two well-known Hamas operatives as the chief suspects. The two men remained on the run late Monday.
Mideast tensions high
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the disappearances, and his forces coordinated closely with Israel during the search for the teens.
But Netanyahu has called on Abbas to dissolve a unity government recently formed with the backing of Hamas, saying it is impossible to be committed to peace while simultaneously sitting together with a group that kidnaps Israelis.
Abbas has so far refused the calls, saying his new government is committed to his political program. Hamas is not part of his government, but has lent its backing from the outside.
The search for the teens captured the nation’s attention. The Israeli media delivered round-the-clock updates on the search, and the mothers of the three teens became high-profile figures as they campaigned for their sons’ return.
Israelis held daily prayer vigils, including mass gatherings attended by tens of thousands of people at the Western Wall, the holiest prayer site in Judaism, and in a downtown square in Tel Aviv.
Late Monday, dozens of Israeli forces moved into the village of Halhul. There were no further details on the operation.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “We obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms violence that takes the lives of innocent civilians.”