JERUSALEM (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Israeli military found the bodies of three missing teenagers on Monday, just over two weeks after they were abducted in the West Bank, allegedly by Hamas militants.
The grisly discovery culminated a feverish search that led to Israel’s largest ground operation in the Palestinian territory in nearly a decade and raised fears of renewed fighting with Hamas.
Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali 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.
As CBS 2’s Dick Brennan reported, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a swift response.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.” He adds the teenagers “were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by wild beasts.”
Netanyahu was meeting with his Security Cabinet to discuss a response.
An overwhelming Israeli security force had swept through the West Bank in a desperate search for the three boys before their bodies were found in a cave.
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. The Shin Bet said the bodies had been buried in a field near the village of Halhul, just north of Hebron.
Binyamin Proper, who was among the civilian volunteers that found the bodies, told an Israeli TV channel 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 realized it was them and we called the army.”
“I’m still shocked. I don’t believe – I’m holding his picture, and I see his smile, and I don’t believe that – he is so young and innocent, and he had his whole life in front of him,” said Gilad Shaar’s aunt, Leehy Shaar.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a tweet Monday that he was “saddened and outraged by the news of the tragic murders.”
New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo echoed the sentiment, saying he was “shocked and saddened at the murder.”
President Barack Obama also issued a statement.
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror against innocent youth…. I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” the statement said.
The Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith International blamed Palestinian militants for the boys’ deaths.
“The kidnapping and subsequent murders are the direct product of the constant and relentless incitement taught by the Palestinians,” B’nai B’rith International said in a statement. “For many decades, generations of Palestinians have been raised on a diet of hate, which feeds the terror targeting Israel. The twin evils of incitement and terrorism have once again shown that Israel does not have a credible partner for peace.”
“It is the duty of the Palestinians to surrender the murderers to Israel,” the group added.
The Israeli government has placed the blame for the kidnappings—which occurred less than two weeks after the swearing in of the Fatah-Hamas-backed Palestinian government—directly on Hamas, which remains committed to the destruction of Israel and to carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
Hamas responded by saying any Israeli attack will “open the gates of hell.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the kidnappings. But tensions are inflamed, and the U.S. State Department has continued to urge restraint on all sides.
“We certainly would continue to urge that – despite, in spite of, obviously, the tragedy, and the enormous pain on the ground as a result,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
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.
“Israel will act against the kidnappers and their terrorist sponsors and comrades,” Netanyahu said earlier this month. “We will do whatever needs to be done to protect our people.”
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.
Last week, Israel identified two well-known Hamas operatives as the chief suspects. There were explosions Monday night at the home of one of the prime suspects, as the Israeli Army raided the home in the West Bank town of Hebron.
Meanwhile, the killings have sent shockwaves around the world, with many New Yorkers expressing their disgust and sadness.