The Israeli army has found the corpses of three teenagers missing since 12 June in a field west of the West Bank city of Hebron, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet due to meet tonight to weigh a response.
The discovery of the corpses of Naftali Frankel, 16, Gilad Shaer 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, is sure to touch off widespread grief and anger in Israeli society, large swathes of which had virtually adopted them as their own children.
Meanwhile, Palestinians braced for a possible escalation of Israeli operations and measures in the West Bank, in which more than 400 people have already been arrested, most of them activists of the militant Hamas group which Israel holds responsible for the kidnapping.
“While finding these bodies was a foregone conclusion, it is possible Netanyahu might want now to take a spectacular punitive action,” said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies. “It’s possible he’s been waiting to be able to point to the bodies and do this.”
It is possible Israel could strike harder in Gaza, which has been tense throughout the kidnapping drama as militants fired rockets at southern Israel and Israel responded with airstrikes. On Monday night there were reports that the Israeli Air Force was in the skies above Gaza.
Mr Netanyahu has accused Hamas, although he has not provided any direct evidence, while the militant group has praised the kidnappings without claiming responsibility. Mr Netanyahu has pressed the moderate Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to break off a recently agreed national reconciliation deal with Hamas in the aftermath of the kidnappings and it appeared likely he will ratchet up the pressure now that the corpses have been found.
After a gag on publication about the discovery of the bodies was lifted, the Israel Defence Forces issued a statement saying: “Following searches three bodies were discovered northwest of Hebron, north of the community of Telem. The bodies are going through forensic identification and the families have been notified.”
Initial reports suggested that the three had been shot dead shortly after they went missing.
Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency last Thursday named two Hamas figures, Marwan Kawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, as the kidnappers of the teenagers, whose corpses were found only 15 minutes’ drive away from where they are believed to have disappeared while hitchhiking.
Israel Radio reported that after gathering information during interrogations of relatives of the two, the army had focused its search on Monday in a limited area and found the three corpses.
Palestinians say the two have been missing since the time the youths disappeared. Abu Aisha’s father was arrested by Israeli forces
Clashes erupted between Palestinians and the massive security forces deployment in Halhoul, near Hebron, with Palestinians reported to have thrown stones at the soldiers.
The Israeli operation against Hamas in the West Bank targeted civilian infrastructure and included raids on charitable associations, universities and a printing press.
Palestinians viewed the campaign as a collective punishment. Five Palestinians died, including a 14-year-old boy in Dura, near Hebron, and the Israeli military activity touched off inter-Palestinian tensions as Palestinians in Ramallah last week demonstrated against Mr Abbas’s ordering of continued security coordination between Palestinian police and the Israeli army.
Abdullah Abdullah, a Palestinian legislator who supports Mr Abbas, voiced concern that Israel will now add to the tensions. “The Israelis must understand that if they raise the tension and further collective punishment, the Palestinians won’t lie dead and let the Israelis wreak havoc. If they do more than what they’re doing, there will be more violence.”