The hunt for three missing Israeli youths in the West Bank has come to a tragic end.
After a long and massive search, Israeli forces found the bodies of three Jewish seminary students who were kidnapped in the West Bank more than two weeks ago. The teenagers apparently were shot shortly after they were abducted while hitchhiking near the biblical town of Hebron.
An Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said the bodies were found in an open field under a pile of rocks.
"At 5 p.m. the IDF [Israel defense forces] exposed in an open field not far from here a pile of rocks, and beneath the rocks we found to begin with two bodies and then as we dug deeper we found a third body," he said.
The kidnapping prompted the biggest Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank in a decade. More than 400 Palestinians have been arrested during the widespread search for the missing teens, mostly members of the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blames Hamas for the murders and said the group will pay a heavy price. Before summoning his security cabinet for a special session Monday, he said the teenagers were killed by what he called "human animals."
General Nitzan Alon, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, said the search for the two Hamas members believed to have carried out the kidnapping is continuing. He said thousands of troops are involved in the search.
“The war on terror did not begin today and it won’t end tomorrow,” the general said, adding that Israel will settle scores with Hamas.
But while Hamas has praised the kidnapping, it has not gone any further than that. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri made a statement in the Gaza Strip, saying no Palestinian faction has claimed responsibility for the attack, including Hamas. Abu Zuhri also brushed off Israeli threats of retaliation, saying that if Israel wages war on Gaza, it will “open up the gates of hell.”
Since the teens' disappearance, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have spiked. Netanyahu has demanded that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas give up a reconciliation deal with Hamas.
In Washington, President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning what he called this "senseless act of terror against innocent youth." He said the U.S. has offered its full support to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to find those who committed the crime and bring them to justice. The White House statement also urged restraint, saying all parties should refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis called the killings "abominable" and said they are a grave obstacle to peace.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.