JERUSALEM — The Israeli army confirmed Monday that search teams found the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that the Islamist militant group Hamas, which it accuses of the abductions, would pay a heavy price.
Speaking at the start of a meeting of his security cabinet following the discovery, Netanyahu said, "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay." He said the three "were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by wild beasts."
The teenagers were abducted June 12 as they made their way home from their religious school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The security cabinet concluded its meeting without making a clear declaration and plans to meet again today.
In the weeks since the abductions, the Israeli military has conducted one of the largest and most aggressive sweeps in the West Bank in a decade. The fallout has included house searches, raids, arrests and even deaths, igniting new frictions between Israelis and Palestinians, who just three months ago were in the midst of U.S.-brokered peace talks.
Netanyahu has said that Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, is directly responsible for the kidnappings and killings. But Netanyahu also has criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' recent move to form a transitional Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party had said they were not responsible for the teens' fate, although the Fatah leader was quick to condemn the kidnappings.
In Washington, President Barack Obama sent his "deepest and heartfelt condolences" to the families. Yet he urged "all parties" to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.
While few details were released on the exact fate of the three teens, security officials said the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, were found in an open area close to Hebron, in the West Bank, near where they disappeared.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said the bodies were discovered about 5 p.m. Monday by civilian volunteer searchers and special forces.
He said the army could not yet specify how the victims were killed or how long their bodies had been hidden there.
Lerner also said it was too early to determine what Israel's response would be, but by Monday night some officials were calling for decisive action.