The bodies of three missing Israeli teenage boys were found Monday, bringing an end to the massive rescue search effort begun after their abduction in the West Bank June 12. Israeli military forces found the bodies of the young men under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron. The Israeli government has accused Hamas, the Islamic military group, of carrying out the kidnappings.
The teens disappeared while hitchhiking home from the Jewish seminaries where they were studying near the West Bank city of Hebron. Despite the risks, hitchhiking is a common practice among Israelis traveling in and out of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The teens were identified as Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year old with dual Israeli-American citizenship.
The search operation, codenamed “Brother’s Keeper,” was the largest ground operation in the Palestinian territory in nearly a decade and drew Israeli threats of retaliation. Israel dispatched thousands of troops across the West Bank searching for the youths, roads in the Hebron area were closed and some 400 Hamas operatives were arrested throughout the territory.
“Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his Security Cabinet Monday evening which adjourned after midnight, following a three-hour session that failed to reach any decisions. Deliberations are expected to resume on Tuesday. The prime minister is in a tough situation. Public outrage over the deaths is high and he has widespread support to strike at Hamas. However, in the aftermath of a two-week crackdown against the group, there are few targets left to be exploited. Additionally, Netanyahu is facing strong international calls for restraint.
News of the deaths prompted an outpouring of grief in the late evening. There were reports of large crowds of supporters rushing to the homes of the families in the central Israeli towns of Nof Ayalon and Elad and the West Bank settlement of Talmon. Supporters also lit candles and prayed. Large crowds gathered in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square and the West Bank junction where the youths were abducted. They sang songs, prayed and lit candles shaped in the boys names or the Jewish Star of David.
“All of Israel bows its head today,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The fact that these teens were so young, and in addition were unarmed civilians seemed to have struck a raw nerve. Security officials have long harbored fears that civilian hitchhikers in the West Bank could be viewed as easy targets of opportunity.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, “Pope Francis shared in the families unspeakable pain.”
For the United States, President Obama sent his “deepest and heartfelt condolences” to the families. However, he urged all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.
“As a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing,” he said.
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