Israel vowed retaliatory action against Hamas after finding the bodies of three teenagers in the West Bank it believes were kidnapped by members of the Palestinian militant group.
“All signs indicate that they are the bodies of our three abducted youths -- Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “Hamas is responsible -- Hamas will pay.”
Israel has accused two Hamas militants of kidnapping the teenagers after they disappeared while hitchhiking on June 12. Their bodies were found yesterday buried under a pile of rocks in an area north of the West Bank city of Hebron and are undergoing forensic investigation, Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said in a phone briefing.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, has neither confirmed nor denied involvement. Suspects connected with the kidnapping have been arrested, Lerner said, without providing further details.
The discovery of the bodies adds to tension between Israel and Gaza that has escalated in recent days over the firing of about 40 rockets at Israel from Gaza, including one that set a factory on fire. Israel’s defense forces said that in retaliation, they targeted 34 sites related to “terror infrastructure” in the Gaza Strip.
Israel will need to investigate the kidnapping incident thoroughly to determine if it was planned and carried out only by a local militant cell, or involved more senior Hamas operatives in Gaza or elsewhere, said Barak Ben-Zur, a former senior official in the Israel Security Agency, better known as Shin Bet. “The government shouldn’t rush into a possibly disproportionate response, as the security situation could very quickly spin out of control,” Ben-Zur said by phone.
“Israelis have the willingness and the fortitude necessary to endure the hardships of a long-lasting operation aimed at eradicating Hamas,” Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said in a statement.
A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said in a statement that “the Israeli occupation is responsible for any future escalation” in the situation. “Netanyahu is trying to twist the picture. He has to understand that his threats don’t scare Hamas, and if he wages a war on Gaza, he will be opening the gates of hell.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a statement, condemned the abduction and killings as a “senseless act of terror” and urged “all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.”
Israel carried out dozens of air strikes in Gaza this morning, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa said on its website. Strikes were on facilities used to launch rockets, Gaza’s al-Aqsa radio reported.
“The IDF will continue to act in order to restore the peaceful living to the civilians of the state of Israel,” Lerner, the Israeli spokesman, said in a statement. “The Hamas terror organization and its extensions are solely responsible for any terror activities emanating from the Gaza Strip.”
The Israeli army said 18 rockets have been fired against Israel since the evening of June 29, including one early today.
A Hamas militant was killed in an Israeli attack two days ago. Israel also has arrested hundreds of Hamas officials and operatives in the West Bank since the youths disappeared. Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces carrying out searches and arrests.
Netanyahu has called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party rules parts of the West Bank, to end the unity government he formed with his Hamas rivals after peace talks with Israel collapsed two months ago. Abbas, who condemned the kidnapping and instructed his security forces to aid in the search, consulted with other top Palestinian officials in Ramallah after the bodies were discovered.
French President Francois Hollande expressed his “sadness” over the discovery in a statement, and British Prime Minister David Cameron called the incident “an appalling and inexcusable act of terror.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that the youths were murdered in a “heinous act by enemies of peace” designed to “further entrench division and distrust and to widen the conflict. It must not be allowed to succeed.”