For two-and-a-half weeks Israel has fretted over the fate of three missing teenagers. Now, it has become clear: they were killed. The violence in the region could escalate further.
Kfar Etzion, south of Jerusalem, on June 12: Naftali Frenkel, 16, Gilad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, attended classes at a religious school in the Jewish settlement. They wanted to hitchhike back home - nothing out of the ordinary in this part of the occupied West Bank. But they never arrived at their homes. They must have been kidnapped on the way.
It was reported later that one of the teenagers had called the police. But the police initially thought it was a prank call. "We're being kidnapped," one of the boys whispered in his mobile phone. Then all traces were lost.
Buried under debris
Only now has their sad fate become known: the bodies of the three teenagers were found on Monday (30.06.2014) buried under debris on a field near Hebron, according to Israeli media. Students who took part in the search became aware of the pile of stones in bushes. The investigations are still underway but security experts are assuming that the three teenagers were killed shortly after the kidnapping.
The first reactions were shock and grief. Football transmissions from the World Cup were canceled. The news of the three teenagers' death confirmed the worst fears. The right-wing politician Naftali Bennett said there would be "no forgiveness for the killer of children."
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein said: "Israel has to fight an uncompromising war against terrorism in general, and Hamas specifically." French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minster David Cameron condemned the killing in the strongest terms. Hollande called it a "cowardly murderer." Cameron labeled it "an appalling and inexcusable act of terror."
The fate of the three teenagers has shaken Israel deeply. Israel accused the radical Islamic Hamas of being responsible for the kidnapping shortly after the disappearance of the three. Hamas rejected the accusation and no organization has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
A large scale search operation was started. The Israeli army searched intensively for the missing teenagers in the West Bank, especially around the Palestinian town of Hebron. Soldiers entered Hebron several times after dark. The military imposed a curfew and conducted house searches.
Five Palestinians have been killed and several were injured
Around 420 Palestinians were arrested during the raids, according to the Israeli army. Most of them were members of Hamas. The soldiers were quite brutal during the large scale operation. "They forced open the door and then destroyed the kitchen," said a young Palestinian woman after her apartment was searched by the army.
Five Palestinians have been killed in clashes during the search operation and several others have been injured. It appears, to some, the Israeli army has used the operation to weaken Hamas in general. A few days ago the Israeli government named two Hamas-affiliated Palestinians who were suspected of being responsible for the kidnapping of the teenagers. The two suspects are still on the run.
On the same evening, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an urgent meeting of the security cabinet. It is now discussing the next steps. "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay," he said at the beginning of the meeting. The situation is already tense after there have been missile attacks from the Gaza Strip and counterattacks from the Israeli army.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri has already warned Israel about the consequences of an escalation of the situation. He warned that "the occupying power" would "be responsible for any escalation."
Observers are assuming that the Israeli Prime Minister will press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to end the reconciliation process with Hamas. Abbas has condemned the kidnapping exceptional strongly, and is now under extreme pressure from the Palestinian side. Abbas has also called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation.
The coming hours will show if the situation will further escalate. Israel will bury the three teenagers. Rage and grief dominate in the country.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are preparing themselves for possible repercussions.