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Credit Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency
JERUSALEM â Israeli searchers found three bodies believed to be those of the missing Israeli teenagers who disappeared more than two weeks ago in the occupied West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces said on Monday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called an emergency Cabinet meeting.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the bodies, which were undergoing forensic identification, were found âfollowing extensive searchesâ in the Palestinian territory.
The disappearances set off an uproar in Israel and deeply aggravated the already strained relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which had just taken steps to form a unity government backed by Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials, who rejected that government, have blamed Hamas for the disappearances of the three teenagers. Hamas did not take responsibility but praised the abductions.
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The intensity and scope of the Israeli security operation to find the missing teenagers was the biggest in the West Bank in more than a decade and left at least five Palestinians dead.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity moments before the official announcement, said the Army had found the three bodies buried under rocks in an open field between Halhul and Beit Kahil, two Palestinian towns outside Hebron. The families had been notified by the military.
âThey know itâs the three, they will know for sure after they do the autopsy,â one of the officials said. The three appeared to have been shot to death, likely âvery close to the kidnapâ time, the official said, and the prime suspects had still not been caught.
Israeli television said the bodies had been discovered by volunteers, guides from the Khfar Etzion Field School. The television accounts said they bodies had been partly covered and appeared to have been dumped hurriedly, probably soon after the abduction.
The three teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also holds United States citizenship, were last seen entering a car at about 10 p.m. on June 12 at a hitchhiking stop in the Gush Etzion settlement block, not far from the area where the bodies were found.
One of the abducted youths managed to place an emergency call to the police and whispered that heâd been kidnapped but the police initially thought it was a prank call. The search only started hours later when some of the parents reported their sons missing.
At 8 p.m. Monday, dozens of military and police vehicles had completely blocked off the north entrance to Halhul, a Palestinian city next to Hebron and the Jewish settlement Karmei Tzur. Inside Halhul, police convoys were operating and scores of troops were visible. But there were practically no cars on Road 60, the main artery south from Jerusalem to Hebron — the road on which the teenagers would have hitchhiked toward home.
The searched involved hundreds of soldiers who had been combing the Hebron area for two weeks. In parallel to the search, the Israeli military conducted an aggressive campaign of arrests and raids aimed at weakening the infrastructure of Hamas in the West Bank.
Danny Danon, Israelâs right-wing deputy defense minister, issued a statement promising that the government would ânot stop until Hamas is completely defeated.â
âWe must ensure that this tragic end be turned into an opportunity to create a better and safer Israel,â Mr. Danon said. âIsraelis have the willingness and the fortitude necessary to endure the hardships of a long-lasting operation aimed at eradicating Hamas.â
He called for the demolition of âhomes of the terroristsâ and destruction of their weapons caches, and urged the international community to halt âall aid to the Palestinian Authority.â
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