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Officials: Israel finds bodies of kidnapped teens

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military found the bodies of three missing teenagers on Monday, just over two weeks after they were abducted in the West Bank, allegedly by Hamas militants. The grisly discovery culminated a feverish search that led to Israel’s largest ground operation in the Palestinian territory in nearly a decade and raised fears of renewed fighting with Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was huddling with his Security Cabinet late Monday to discuss a response.

Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, disappeared while hitchhiking home near the West Bank city of Hebron late at night on June 12 and were never heard from again. Despite the dangers, hitchhiking is common among Israelis traveling in and out of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Israeli military and the Shin Bet security agency announced late Monday that the bodies had been found. “The bodies are currently going through forensic identification. The families of the abducted teens have been notified,” the army said. The Shin Bet said the bodies had been buried in a field near the village of Halhul, just north of Hebron.

Binyamin Proper, who was among the civilian volunteers that found the bodies, told Channel 2 TV that a member of the search party “saw something suspicious on the ground, plants that looked out of place, moved them and moved some rocks and then found the bodies. We realized it was them and we called the army.”

Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions and launched a frantic manhunt throughout the West Bank, arresting nearly 400 Hamas operatives in the process. Last week, Israel identified two well-known Hamas operatives as the chief suspects. The two men remained on the run late Monday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnappings, and his forces coordinated closely with Israel during the search for the teens. But Netanyahu has called on Abbas to dissolve a unity government recently formed with the backing of Hamas, saying it is impossible to be committed to peace while simultaneously sitting together with a group that kidnaps Israelis. Abbas has so far refused the calls, saying his new government is committed to his political program. Hamas is not part of his government, but has lent its backing from the outside.

The search for the teens captured the nation’s attention. The Israeli media delivered round-the-clock updates on the search, and the mothers of the three teens became high-profile figures as they campaigned for their sons’ return. Israelis held daily prayer vigils, including mass gatherings attended by tens of thousands of people at the Western Wall, the holiest prayer site in Judaism, and in a downtown square in Tel Aviv.

Late Monday, dozens of Israeli forces moved into the village of Halhul. There were no further details on the operation.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “We obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms violence that takes the lives of innocent civilians.”

Officials: Israel finds bodies of kidnapped teens

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Security officials say the Israeli military has discovered the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped in the West Bank earlier this month.

They say the bodies were found Monday near the village of Halhul, near the location where the teens disappeared on June 12.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for releasing the information ahead of a formal announcement.

The search for the teens has become a national obsession, setting off a frantic manhunt and large crackdown on the Hamas militant group.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Palestinian militants fired at least 14 rockets into southern Israel early Monday, damaging two homes but causing no injuries, the army and police officials said.

Rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has increased in recent weeks as Israeli troops carry out an extensive operation against the Islamic militant group in the West Bank. The crackdown comes amid a search for three missing Israeli teens that Israel says were abducted by Hamas.

The rockets fired Monday raised to about 40 the number that have landed in Israel since the teens went missing earlier this month, the army said. The rockets have not killed or wounded anybody, but sow fear in Israeli communities near the border. Police said two houses were damaged by shrapnel on Monday.

“If the rocket fire continues, there are two options. Either Hamas will stop it. They are in charge on the ground. Or we will have to stop it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “I strongly suggest to Hamas to take into account that we will not allow the rocket fire to continue.”

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, took control of Gaza in 2007 after routing forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Early this month, Abbas moved to end the seven-year rift by forming a Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas. While Abbas is ostensibly in charge of Gaza, Hamas remains in de facto control with thousands of fighters and a large arsenal of rockets and other weapons.

Netanyahu has urged Abbas to dissolve the new government and cancel his agreement with Hamas. Abbas says his Cabinet, comprised of professional technocrats with no ties to Hamas, remains committed to his political program.