Israel on Tuesday paid an emotional farewell to three teenagers killed in the West Bank, while vowing to hunt down the Hamas militants it holds responsible for their kidnap and murder.
The disappearance of Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Ifrach, from a roadside in the southern West Bank on June 12 and the hunt for their kidnappers has gripped the Israeli public, triggering an outpouring of public grief and anger.
But the drama drew to a bitter end on Monday when troops uncovered three bodies in a field in the West Bank.
All three had been shot in a triple murder blamed on militants from the Islamist Hamas movement.
Twenty-four hours later, tens of thousands of mourners from across the country packed into the cemetery in Modiin in central Israel to pay their last respects at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
“I know the pain of mourning. There is nothing worse than that,” said Netanyahu standing by the three coffins, each draped with a blue and white Israeli flag.
Israel has vowed it will exact a high price from Hamas for the murders, but at the funerals there were no calls for bloodshed or revenge.
“I managed to speak to you just before you set off home. I heard your peaceful and loving voice… and now you’ve come home to us,” said Ofir Shaer, addressing his son Gilad, his voice hoarse with emotion.
“Now Mum and I are facing the biggest challenge of our lives.”
– National trauma –
The story has received almost blanket coverage in Israel since the three students disappeared, with thousands of people turning out for a mass prayer session at the Western Wall in the Old City, and again in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
The teens were likely shot dead soon after they were picked up, with their bodies buried in a field near Halhul, just 10 minutes from where they were last seen.
“We know how to settle accounts with Hamas. We will not rest until we lay our hands on them,” Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
There has never been any credible claim of responsibility for the abductions, and Hamas has described Israel’s accusations as “stupid”.
Israel has vowed to hunt down the killers, and the security cabinet was to meet for a second night to discuss how to deal with Hamas, officials said.
Netanyahu warned at a defence ministry meeting in Tel Aviv late Tuesday that Israel would expand its bombing campaign against Hamas targets in Gaza, after striking dozens of sites belonging to the group the previous night.
The military “has been active in recent days against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip… if need be, we will expand the campaign,” he said, adding that an operation against Hamas in the West Bank would continue in tandem.
– ‘Measured’ military response –
A string of hardline MPs and ministers have demanded Israel deal a crushing blow to Hamas, whose stronghold is in Gaza. But ministers are reported to be sharply at odds over the right course of action.
An Israeli official told AFP that Yaalon had suggested a “measured” military response, and Netanyahu was inclined to accept his position.
He also proposed turning a former West Bank army base into a new Jewish settlement in their memory, the official said, confirming a report by Haaretz newspaper.
Although Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza hitting 34 targets overnight, nobody was killed and only four people were hurt.
Hamas has warned any Israeli attack would “open the gates of hell”.
Two Hamas men named by Israel as the prime suspects — Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Eishe — remain at large, although troops blew up their homes on Tuesday, witnesses said.
Since June 12, Israel has arrested 419 Palestinians, two thirds of them Hamas members, and six Palestinians have been killed in clashes triggered by the operation.
Gaza militants have also fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel since June 12, prompting Israel to stage retaliatory air strikes, killing three Palestinians.
Nine rockets more rockets struck the south on Tuesday, the army said.
London-based rights group Amnesty International slammed Israel’s vast arrest campaign.
“The murder of three abducted Israeli teens deserves justice,” it said in a statement.
But it said the West Bank operation amounted to “collective punishment of Palestinians” and “blatant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.”