JERUSALEM – The Israeli military found the bodies of three missing teenagers on Monday just over two weeks after they were abducted in the West Bank – a grim discovery that ended a frantic search that led to Israel's largest ground operation in the Palestinian territory in nearly a decade and drew Israeli threats of retaliation.
"Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed, referring to the Islamic militant group that Israel has accused of carrying out the kidnappings.
The teenagers "were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by human animals," the Israeli leader said as he convened an emergency meeting of his Security Cabinet.
The three-hour session ended after midnight without any decisions, and officials were expected to resume deliberations on Tuesday.
The episode has put Netanyahu in a difficult position. With a public enraged over the deaths, the Israeli leader has widespread support to strike Hamas. But after a two-week crackdown against the group, he could have a tough time finding new targets. He is also facing international calls for restraint.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, disappeared June 12 while hitchhiking home from the Jewish seminaries where they were studying near the West Bank city of Hebron. Despite the dangers, hitchhiking is common among Israelis traveling in and out of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
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. The search ended Monday afternoon with the discovery of the bodies under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron.
Israel has identified two well-known Hamas operatives from Hebron as the primary suspects. The men, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, remain on the run, and military officials said the search for them would continue.
The search for the teens became a national obsession. Israeli media delivered round-the-clock updates, top officials held daily televised briefings and Israelis held prayer vigils. The mothers of the three teens became public figures as they campaigned for their sons' return, at one point traveling to Geneva to address the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
News of their deaths prompted an outpouring of grief late Monday. Large crowds of supporters rushed to the homes of the families in the central Israeli towns of Nof Ayalon and Elad, and the West Bank settlement of Talmon, while supporters lit memorial candles and prayed.
Large crowds gathered in Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square, and at the West Bank junction where the youths were abducted, singing songs, praying and lighting candles shaped in the names of the youths or the Jewish Star of David.
"All of Israel bows its head today," said President Shimon Peres.
Thousands of Israelis have died in wars and militant attacks over the years, and Israel has grappled with the kidnappings of soldiers by militant groups in the past. But the ages of the victims, and the fact that they were unarmed civilians, seemed to strike a raw nerve. Security officials have long feared that civilian hitchhikers in the West Bank could make easy targets.
Beyond identifying the suspected kidnappers, Israel has not publicly provided evidence proving the involvement of Hamas, which has praised the kidnappings but not claimed responsibility for them. It is also not clear whether the kidnappers received orders from higher-ups or acted on their own.
Still, Hamas frequently encourages its members to try to kidnap Israelis, believing hostages could be used to win the release of militants detained in Israeli prisons. Tensions had also been high since the shooting deaths in May of two Palestinian teens during a stone-throwing clash with Israeli security forces.
News of the Israeli teens' deaths generated condemnations from around the world. Pope Francis, who in May visited the region, shared in the families' "unspeakable pain," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
In Washington, President Barack Obama sent his "deepest and heartfelt condolences" to the families. "As a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing," he said. Yet he urged "all parties" to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a similar condemnation of the "heinous crime," but also urged the sides to "refrain from any actions that could further escalate this highly tense situation."
Israel's options may be limited. 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 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli troops seemed to find very little during the latest crackdown.
Israel could turn its attention toward the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel has been battling a surge in rocket fire from Gaza and could step up the intensity of its reprisals.
It also might consider stronger political action. Netanyahu has urged Abbas to disband a unity government he recently formed with Hamas' backing. The Israeli leader will almost certainly step up the pressure on Abbas.
Israeli media have also said that Israel might consider deporting Hamas leaders in the West Bank to Gaza.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri warned Israel against any broad offensive. Gaza militants possess thousands of rockets, and would almost certainly unleash heavy barrages at Israel if Israel attacks.
"Netanyahu should know that threats don't scare Hamas, and if he wages a war on Gaza, the gates of hell will open on him," he said.
Abbas has condemned the kidnappings, and his forces coordinated closely with Israel during the search for the teens. But he has so far refused Israeli calls to terminate the unity government, which ended a seven-year rift with Hamas. He says his new Cabinet remains committed to his political program.
The Palestinian president scheduled a meeting of the Palestinian leadership on Tuesday to discuss the events, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
Abdallah Abdallah, an adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinians regretted the loss of life.
"We want peace to be created in this part of the world so no mother or no family will be bereaved for the loss of their beloved ones, Palestinian or Israeli," he said.