Backlash fears after murder of three Israeli teenagers
Three Israeli teenagers whose disappearance led to one of Israel's biggest manhunts were found dead – believed murdered – yesterday, raising fears of a fresh wave of violence in the Middle East's most enduring conflict.
Israeli security sources confirmed that the bodies of Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah (19) had been found north of the West Bank city of Hebron, not far from where they were last seen on June 12.
The teenagers had apparently been shot soon after having been abducted while hitchhiking. "They were under a pile of rocks, in an open field," said Lt-Col Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
The Israeli army said post-mortems were being held. The discovery prompted an emergency meeting of Israel's security cabinet, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister.
In an emotional statement, Mr Netanyahu said the youths had been "kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts".
He blamed the crime on Hamas, saying: "Satan has not yet invented vengeance for the blood of a small child. Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay."
Shimon Peres, Israel's president, said: "All of Israel bows its head today.
"For 18 days we hoped and prayed with one voice that we would find the boys safe and well. With this bitter news all of Israel mourns their deaths.
"Along with our deep sense of loss we remain committed to bringing the terrorists to justice. Our resolve in the fight against terror will only strengthen."
The discovery of the bodies brought to an end a massive security operation launched simultaneously to find the teenagers while cracking down on the infrastructure of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that Israel believes was responsible for their abduction.
Israel said two Hamas operatives – Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu-Eysha- were – were thought to have kidnapped the three teenagers.
Both have been arrested in the past for involvement in Hamas terrorist activity, the Israeli Embassy in London said, and had been given military training by Hamas.
Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the youths' disappearance but has previously issued statements praising their "kidnapping".
Israeli officials initially believed that the teenagers had been kidnapped to use as a bartering chip to win the freedom of thousands of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel's jails.
The teenagers disappeared after being last seen trying to hitch-hike to central Israel from a bus stop outside the Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank, where they were studying at a religious seminary school.
A saloon car into which they were believed to have been lured was later found burnt out south of Hebron.
In the days after their disappearance, it emerged that one of the teenagers had called an emergency police hotline and whispered, "I've been kidnapped" before being cut off.
Police tried eight times to return his call but found the phone switched off.
There was severe criticism after it was disclosed that officers failed to alert the army about the call, apparently passing it off as a prank. (© Daily Telegraph, London)