JERUSALEM — Israel’s intense 18-day search for three abducted teenagers ended Monday when their bodies were found buried under a pile of rocks in an open field about 15 miles from where the youths were last seen in the occupied West Bank.
A nation that had been enmeshed in hopeful prayer was instantly engulfed by a mix of grief and anger and vowed retaliation against the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which Israel says was behind the killings.
“They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts,’’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said at the start of an emergency Cabinet meeting Monday night. “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.’’
Just after midnight, witnesses in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city said the retaliation had begun as Israeli forces used explosives to demolish the homes of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, the Hamas men who have been missing since the teenagers vanished and who are Israel’s prime suspects.
By 4 a.m. Tuesday, Israel had pummeled the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip with 34 airstrikes, continuing an escalation in which Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets toward southern Israel Monday after two weeks of tit-for-tat in which Israeli bombs killed three suspected militants.
The June 12 abduction and its aftermath, after April’s collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks, have sent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its lowest point in nearly a decade and shaken the fragile reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas.
Israel’s crackdown in the West Bank prompted outcries of collective punishment as thousands of homes were searched, 400 Palestinians — including many of Hamas’ top leaders — were arrested, and five were killed while hurling stones at soldiers or otherwise confronting them.
The crisis has weakened President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who condemned the kidnapping and deployed his security forces to cooperate with Israel’s hunt. Hamas leaders ridiculed Abbas as a traitor, and a Palestinian mob smashed four of the authority’s police cars and stormed its police station in Ramallah’s central square. Israel, meanwhile, said Abbas’ words were meaningless unless he severed the pact with Hamas.
Abbas called an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership for Tuesday to assess “the consequences of the latest events,’’ according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency. Early Tuesday, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, issued a statement saying “no Palestinian group, Hamas or any other group,’’ had taken responsibility.
“We reject all Israeli allegations and threats against us,’’ he said. “We are already used to it and will know how to defend ourselves.’’
Even before Israel’s late-night Cabinet meeting, several of its right-wing ministers demanded a severe response.
“This is the time for actions and not for talk,’’ Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party, wrote on Facebook.
Yisrael Katz, the transportation minister and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud faction, urged the prime minister to “act with all our strength against Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and teach Hamas a lesson.’’
President Barack Obama issued a statement saying that “as a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing,’’ but also urging “all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.’’
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the bodies were uncovered by a team that included civilian volunteers at 5 p.m. Monday between Halhul and Beit Kahil, Palestinian towns near Hebron, an area hundreds of soldiers had been scouring for more than a week. Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, said the three teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel, 16, a U.S.-Israeli citizen; his friend Gilad Shaar, also 16; and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — appeared to have been fatally shot shortly after they got into a car near the Kfar Etzion settlement south of Jerusalem.
The lack of a ransom demand, a credible claim of responsibility or any other signs that the teenagers might be alive had made many Israelis suspect the worst. Paratroopers, special forces units, Bedouin tracker teams and dogs had combed through caves day after day with no indication of progress.
Benny Drupper, a member of the search team, said that signs of a discovery emerged Monday afternoon when “one of the guys spotted something abnormal’’ in “an isolated, half-cultivated area’’ among the Hebron hills.
“He moved some of the rocks and discovered a body,’’ Drupper said on Army Radio. “It is not an area someone would drive through every day unless he is a farmer there,’’ he added. “The search in this area was conducted with the understanding that a terrorist would think about such a location beforehand.’’
Although one of the teenagers phoned the police about 10:30 p.m. June 12 and whispered, “I’ve been kidnapped,’’ the call was dismissed as a crank, delaying the search for hours. Rosenfeld said Monday that four police officers had been suspended over the handling of the call, but that more prompt action would probably not have prevented the killings.
As the news spread, Israeli television channels halted World Cup broadcasts and canceled prime-time shows, filling the hours with discussions of the discovery, while radio stations played sad songs.
People converged in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, sitting on the ground and lighting candles, and others said psalms at the West Bank hitchhiking post where the teenagers were last seen. In Jerusalem, a small group of religious youths marched toward Netanyahu’s official residence waving Israeli flags and chanting, “Bibi, wake up!’’ — using the prime minister’s nickname.
Outside the Fraenkel home in Nof Ayalon, a serene suburb between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, weeping girls and mothers embraced next to a large banner with the Hebrew word for “live.’’
Michael Tikochinsky, a friend who was inside with the family, said Naftali’s mother, Rachel Fraenkel, “received the bad news in silence’’ and was already dressed in black but had not yet told her youngest children of their brother’s fate.
“I can’t talk about Naftali in the past tense,’’ said Tikochinsky, 45, adding that Fraenkel had only a few days ago ordered new eyeglasses for him.
Tzurit Fenigstein, a neighbor of the Shaars in the West Bank settlement of Talmon, said in a telephone interview that a Tel Aviv rally Sunday night that drew tens of thousands “made the family feel they are not alone.’’
Although the focus of attention has been on the West Bank, the escalation in Gaza threatened to ignite a major confrontation.
Israel’s latest assault began about 2 a.m. Tuesday, with what a military statement called a “precision strike.’’ The statement said that 18 rockets had been fired at Israel since Sunday evening, many of them panicking schoolchildren Monday morning as they prepared for the last day of school.
While most of the rocket fire since the kidnapping has been attributed to small, rogue groups, Netanyahu on Monday accused a Hamas cell of being involved. Other Israeli officials said Hamas, which has for 18 months worked to safeguard a cease-fire with Israel, has lately let the rockets fly.
“Either Hamas stops it, as it is responsible for the territory, or we will stop it,’’ Netanyahu said.
Hours later, after the bodies were discovered, Danny Danon, Israel’s deputy defense minister, issued a statement promising that the government “would not stop until Hamas is completely defeated.’’
As Monday turned to Tuesday, Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents were clashing at the entrance to Hebron, the home of the suspected kidnappers, Qawasmeh, a 29-year-old barber, and Abu Aisha, 33, who owns a store near Jerusalem. Israeli troops have repeatedly searched the men’s homes. They returned Monday night, blocking access to the houses, and fired tear gas at scores of Palestinians who showed up and threw stones.
Qawasmeh’s mother, Amneh Hijazi Qawasmeh, 48, said the suspect’s pregnant wife and 2-month-old nephew were lightly wounded in the blast at their home.
Abu Aisha’s mother, Nadia, said the Israelis had demolished her house, as they did after another son was killed in 2005 when he tried to hurl an explosive at soldiers. Amer Abu Aisha left behind three children, she said.
“I will educate them to be for jihad,’’ she said. “I promise they will be as their father, to be fighters and to be martyrs.’’
Lerner, the military spokesman, said troops had used explosives only to gain entry to the homes.
“We are still pursuing the fugitives,’’ he told reporters earlier.