JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian from the militant group Hamas was shot dead when he threw a grenade at forces carrying out an arrest raid in the West Bank hours after the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted over two weeks ago, Israel’s military said Tuesday.
Tensions have soared since the bodies were found, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blaming Hamas and warning it “will pay,” while militants in Hamas-controlled Gaza have stepped up rocket attacks, drawing Israeli retaliatory airstrikes and risking a wider conflict.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, were abducted on June 12 while hitchhiking home from the Jewish seminaries where they were studying near the West Bank city of Hebron. The teens’ bodies were found Monday evening after 18 days of intense searches.
A Defense official said based on the investigation that the teens were shot soon after they were abducted. He spoke anonymously in line with protocol as the investigation is still ongoing.
Hamas, which has kidnapped Israelis in the past, has praised the abduction of the teenagers but not taken responsibility for it.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri warned Israel against any broad offensive against the group, saying it would “open the gates of hell” on Israel.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon issued a statement Tuesday vowing to find those behind the killings. “We see Hamas responsible for the kidnappings and murders. We will continue to pursue the murderers of the teens and will not rest until we lay our hands on them,” he said.
The man killed Tuesday was the first casualty since the bodies were found.
A military spokesman meanwhile said aircraft struck 34 targets across Gaza overnight after more than 20 rockets were fired into Israel since late Sunday from the Palestinian territory.
In an operation codenamed “Brother’s Keeper,” Israel dispatched thousands of troops across the West Bank in search of the youths, closed roads in the Hebron area and arrested some 400 Hamas operatives throughout the territory.
There is a national spirit of solidarity in Israel, a small country with an “all for one and one for all” mentality that stems from compulsory military service for Jewish citizens, and news of the teens’ deaths prompted an outpouring of grief.
Large crowds of Israelis went to the homes of the families in the central Israeli towns of Nof Ayalon and Elad, and the West Bank settlement of Talmon, to pay their respects, while supporters lit memorial candles and prayed.
Large gatherings were also held in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square, and at the West Bank junction where the youths were abducted, with Israelis singing hymns and songs, praying and lighting candles shaped in the names of the youths or the Jewish Star of David.
Thousands of Israelis have died in wars and militant attacks over the years, and Israel has grappled with the abduction of soldiers and civilians in the past. But the ages of the victims, and the fact that they were unarmed civilians, struck a raw nerve.
“Today is really a national mourning day in Israel,” said Eitan Schwartz, from the Tel Aviv municipality.
Israel has said two well-known Hamas operatives from Hebron are the primary suspects. The men, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, have not been seen since the teens went missing, and military officials said the search for them would continue.
Israeli soldiers blew up a door of Abu Aisheh’s home in Hebron early Tuesday, said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to protocol. AP photos show extensive damage to one side of the house.
Netanyahu met with top security officials late into the night Monday to discuss how to respond, and officials are expected to resume deliberations on Tuesday.
After a two-week crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, few major targets remain there. Hamas had already been weakened by seven years of pressure by Israel and the forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel could turn its attention toward the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where it has been battling a surge in rocket fire since the teens went missing.
The intensified rocket attacks have lightly injured several Israelis, damaged houses and destroyed a factory. One rocket fired by the Palestinian militants exploded prematurely in Gaza last week, killing a Palestinian girl.
Israel also might consider stronger political action. The crisis has escalated already heightened tensions between Israel and the new Palestinian government, which is headed by Abbas but backed by Hamas.
Hamas, an offshoot of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, is deeply rooted in Palestinian society. The movement’s political goal is an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including the territory that now makes up Israel.
Israel and its Western allies consider Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, a terrorist group.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev called on Abbas “to break his alliance with these killers.”
“This atrocity, this murder of innocent teenagers on their way home from school, is a clear example. It demonstrates that Hamas has not changed. It remains a vicious, vile terrorist organization that targets every Israeli civilian man, woman and as we’ve seen, children as well,” he said.
The slain teens are to be laid to rest Tuesday afternoon.