Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to track down the last of the militants involved in kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers, and warned that his military was prepared to step up its campaign against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
“We will find them all,” Netanyahu said in a statement broadcast on Israel Radio, shortly after thousands of mourners buried the youths, whose bodies were found yesterday in a West Bank ditch. Hamas is responsible and the Israeli military will “widen its offensive” against it “if necessary,” he said. The group, classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, hasn’t confirmed or denied involvement.
The Israeli leader spoke as cabinet ministers prepared to sit down for a second time to try to work out differences over how harshly Israel should retaliate, an official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the debate on the record.
Since the bodies were found, the Gaza offices of senior Hamas officials have been closed, and the group’s leaders have not appeared in public. Israel has assassinated Hamas leaders in the past, and in times of tension, senior members of the group have gone into hiding.
The abductions have already ignited a new round of violence, and overnight, Israeli aircraft pounded dozens of targets in Gaza, the military said. Militants there have launched more than 30 rockets at southern Israel over the past two days, it said.
The teenagers’ disappearance on June 12 set off hundreds of arrest raids in the West Bank, and a Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire in an operation overnight. His death brought to six the number of Palestinians killed since the roundups began.
The bodies of the three teenagers, who were last seen hitchhiking in the West Bank, were found yesterday under a pile of rocks near the West Bank city of Hebron, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said. Suspects connected with the kidnapping have been arrested, Lerner said, providing no details.
Tens of thousands of mourners, including Netanyahu, gathered to bury the youths, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Shortly before, a gag order was lifted on the recorded call one of the teenagers placed to a police emergency hotline. “I’ve been kidnapped,” he is heard saying. Another voice shouted, “Put your head down,” then shrieks and multiple sounds of impact, possibly gunshots, were heard.
Four police officers involved in the mishandling of the call have been reassigned, Rosenfeld said. Initial findings indicate the youths were shot and killed almost immediately after they were kidnapped, he added.
Netanyahu has blamed the kidnapping on two Hamas militants, without offering evidence of the group’s involvement. The military raided the suspects’ homes, a military spokeswoman said.
“No Palestinian group, including Hamas, has taken responsibility for this act, so the Israeli version can’t be trusted,” a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said in a statement.
Netanyahu has called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party rules parts of the West Bank, to dismantle the Hamas-backed unity government he formed after peace talks with Israel collapsed two months ago. Abbas condemned the kidnapping and instructed his security forces to aid in the search.
The Palestinian leader asked U.S. and European officials to urge Israel to curtail its “aggression” against the Palestinian people, Fatah spokesman Fayez Abu Eita said on Voice of Palestine radio.
The United Nations’ special envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, said in a statement that “the perpetrators must be brought to justice.” He urged all sides “to avoid steps that can further exacerbate an already tense atmosphere.”
Israeli leaders will need to determine if the kidnapping was planned and carried out by a local militant cell or involved more senior Hamas operatives, said Barak Ben-Zur, a former senior official in Israel’s internal security service, 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.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at a funeral service for the youths that “we will not rest in peace until we lay hands on the abductors and take revenge.”