Israel debates retaliation after bodies of missing teens found in West Bank

The Israeli government debated possible retaliatory action for the killings of three Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found Monday in the West Bank more than two weeks after the students vanished while hitchhiking home from their religious schools.

A meeting of the Israeli security cabinet ended early Tuesday morning with no decisions announced, reflecting division among senior ministers about what form the Israeli reaction should take. Hawkish ministers advocated tough punitive measures, while others counseled restraint, according to reports from the meeting.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had threatened the militant group Hamas with retaliation for the teens’ deaths. “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,” he said.

But it was not immediately clear what action Israel could take. Beyond Netanyahu’s assertion of Hamas culpability, there is no evident link between the abduction and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. No group has claimed responsibility the teens’ disappearances and murders.

Israeli forces already have launched a broad crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting more than 400 people and raiding charities, social welfare institutions, media offices and student groups suspected of links to the Islamist faction.

Israeli military officials said they were focusing their efforts on finding the two suspected kidnappers, identified by Israel’s Shin Ben security service as Hamas operatives from the West Bank city of Hebron. Reports from the city said troops were surrounding their family homes and that some family members had been detained.

The two suspects also have been missing since the Israeli teenagers disappeared on June 12. One of the teenagers managed to call an emergency police line, whispering that he had been kidnapped, but the responders dismissed the call as a prank after several efforts to call the teen back went unanswered.

On Monday the bodies of the youths were found by search volunteers and soldiers in a field northwest of Hebron, military officials said. The three teenagers had been shot, apparently shortly after they boarded the kidnappers’ car on a road in the neighboring Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Israeli news outlets reported.

Benjamin Propper, a staff member at a nature center in the settlement of Kfar Etzion, who was with the search party, told Israel’s Channel Two television that the bodies were discovered under a pile of rocks after one of the volunteers noticed a shrub that seemed out of place.

The dead teens were identified as Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16. Fraenkel had dual Israeli-American citizenship.

After news of their death was reported on Israeli media, friends flocked to their families’ homes, and teenagers in Gush Etzion gathered near the site of the kidnapping, lighting memorial candles and singing mournful songs.

President Obama issued a statement expressing his condolences. “As a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing,” the statement said. “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror against innocent youth.”

Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians “to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” a reference to possible retaliation by the Israelis and a Palestinian backlash.

Netanyahu has consistently blamed Hamas in the case, and most of those arrested in the military sweeps in the last two weeks were suspected Hamas operatives, including more than 50 former prisoners released in a 2011 exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive by Hamas in Gaza.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, noted that Hamas leaders have repeatedly called for abductions of Israelis to exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but he said it remained unclear whether the kidnappers of the teenagers acted on their own or on direct orders from superiors.

“We don’t feel that (such orders were) actually necessary,” Lerner said.

Netanyahu had seized on the kidnapping to urge Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon a reconciliation deal between his Fatah movement and Hamas, which led to the recent formation of Palestinian unity government backed by both factions.

The slaying of the three youths could strain that reconciliation effort. Abbas has strongly condemned the abduction and pledged to assist in the searches for the kidnappers, who he charged were trying to “destroy us.”