JERUSALEM (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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was huddling with his Security Cabinet late Monday to discuss a response.
Eyal Yifrah, 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. Despite the dangers, hitchhiking is common among Israelis traveling in and out of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
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 Channel 2 TV 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."
Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions and launched a frantic manhunt throughout the West Bank, arresting nearly 400 Hamas operatives in the process. Last week, Israel identified two well-known Hamas operatives as the chief suspects. The two men remained on the run late Monday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnappings, and his forces coordinated closely with Israel during the search for the teens. But 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. 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.
The search for the teens captured the nation's attention. The Israeli media delivered round-the-clock updates on the search, and the mothers of the three teens became high-profile figures as they campaigned for their sons' return. Israelis held daily prayer vigils, including mass gatherings attended by tens of thousands of people at the Western Wall, the holiest prayer site in Judaism, and in a downtown square in Tel Aviv.
Late Monday, dozens of Israeli forces moved into the village of Halhul. There were no further details on the operation.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "We obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms violence that takes the lives of innocent civilians."