News broke Monday that the bodies of three Israel teenagers missing for most of the month were found buried in a field near the West Bank city of Hebron. The trio were reportedly abducted more than two weeks ago; their absence triggered one of the most extensive Israeli incursions into the West Bank in the past decade. Now, with the discovery of the bodies, the focus has shifted to how Israel will respond.
Who the teenagers were
Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, were all attending yeshivas, or religious seminaries, in settlements in the West Bank. Fraenkel had dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. Officials heading the search have yet to officially confirm that the remains uncovered were the three teens, but judging from noises made elsewhere, it seems fairly certain. They disappeared on the night of June 12 or in the early morning of June 13 as they attempted to hitch-hike outside Hebron, the site of longstanding tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. The teenagers' disappearance has greatly exercised Israeli society, with tens of thousands massing in protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday night. It has also led to a fair amount of speculation and conspiracy-theorizing over why the search has taken so long.
Who Israel suspects killed them
No one has taken responsibility for their disappearance and death, but Israeli authorities seem emphatically clear who the culprits are. They blame Hamas, the militant Islamist group that dominates the Gaza Strip. "All Israel tonight is united in mourning the three teens who were brutally murdered by the Hamas terrorists," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the past two weeks, Israel has launched a massive security operation in the West Bank that has led to the rounding up of over 400 Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. The house-to-house searches and mass arrests brought Palestinian youth out into the streets. At least five Palestinians have died after being fatally shot by Israeli soldiers in the resulting crackdown, including 15-year-old teenager Mohammed Dudeen.
Flames billow from the blown-up house of Amer Abu Eisheh, a suspect in the killing of three kidnapped Israelis pic.twitter.com/d9YLWVVFBL— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) June 30, 2014
Israeli authorities claim to have found two principal suspects and are planning to demolish their homes.
What may happen next
The full extent of Israel's response remains to be seen. It has already launched repeated air strikes on supposed Hamas positions in Gaza, and reports on Monday evening suggested a new bombardment was underway. At least three Palestinians in the isolated coastal strip have died as a result. Hamas reportedly launched a volley of rockets across the Gaza border on Monday morning.
غارات جوية علي غزة من قبل الجيش الإسرائيلي pic.twitter.com/cDqo46mHhH— Awan News (@AwanNewsKw) June 30, 2014
Hamas has already criticized Israel for escalating tensions, while right-wing Israeli politicians have called for the re-occupation of Gaza. An offensive against other militant brigades is reportedly underway.
What this means for the peace process
The West Bank is governed by a Hamas rival, the secular Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been the main interlocutor in the faltering U.S.-authored peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Abbas denounced the teenagers' abductions and committed significant resources in the search for them. But his constituents faced what many considered collective punishment for the disappearance of the Israeli teens.
Netanyahu insisted during a speech Monday that Israel's occupation of the West Bank would continue indefinitely. "My friends, it’s a fact, one that can no longer be ignored because of outdated diplomatic concepts, and because of it one must understand that in any future arrangement with the Palestinians, Israel must maintain security control of the area up to the Jordan River for a very long time," he said.
Despite the strenuous efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, peace talks have achieved little, with Israeli settlement construction -- deemed illegal by the international community -- continuing apace. The lack of progress led to a unity pact between Fatah and Hamas, an organization Israel considers beyond the pale. The strength of that intra-Palestinian rapprochement will be put to the test in the coming days. Abbas is chairing an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership on Tuesday.
All signs suggest that, by then, there may be more bodies to be buried.