Jerusalem: Israeli military searchers found three bodies believed to be those of the missing Israeli teenagers who disappeared more than two weeks ago in the occupied West Bank, the Israel Defence Forces said Monday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency cabinet meeting.
The Israel Defence Forces said in a statement that the bodies, which were undergoing forensic identification, were found "following extensive searches" in the Palestinian territory.
The disappearances set off an uproar in Israel and deeply aggravated the already strained relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials blamed Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas did not take responsibility but praised the abduction of the three Israelis.
"This evening, we found three bodies and all the signs indicate that they are the bodies of our three kidnapped youngsters," Mr Netanyahu told ministers at the start of an emergency session of his security cabinet.
"They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by human animals. Satan has not yet invented vengeance for the blood of small child," he said.
"Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay."
Senior Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the army had found the three bodies buried under rocks in an open field between Halhul and Beit Kahil, two Palestinian towns outside Hebron. The families had been notified by the military.
"They know it's the three; they will know for sure after they do the autopsy," one of the officials said.
The three appeared to have been shot to death, likely "very close to the kidnap" time, the official said, and the prime suspects had still not been caught.
The three teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also holds US citizenship, were last seen entering a car about 10pm June 12 at a hitchhiking stop in the Gush Etzion settlement block, not far from the area where the bodies were found.
One of the abducted youths managed to place an emergency call to the police and whispered that he'd been kidnapped but the police initially thought it was a prank call. The search only started hours later when some of the parents reported their sons missing.
At 8pm on Monday, dozens of military and police vehicles had completely blocked off the north entrance to Halhul, a Palestinian city next to Hebron and the Jewish settlement Karmei Tzur. Inside Halhul, police convoys were operating and scores of troops were visible. But there were practically no cars on Road 60, the main artery south from Jerusalem to Hebron - the road on which the teenagers would have hitchhiked toward home.
World leaders lined up to express outrage for the deaths and concern both for the families and the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the murders a "heinous act by enemies of peace" that aim to entrench division and distrust and widen the Middle East conflict.
"There can be no justification for the deliberate killing of civilians," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement, adding that Mr Ban "hopes Israeli and Palestinian authorities will work together to bring the perpetrators swiftly to justice".
President Barack Obama expressed condolences and urged all parties to refrain from actions that could escalate tensions in the region.
"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror against innocent youth," the President said in a statement, adding he had offered US help to Israel and the Palestinians to find those responsible for the deaths of the three seminary students.
The Vatican on Monday condemned the killings as a "hideous and unacceptable crime" and a obstacle to peace.
In an usually strong statement, the Vatican spokesman said Pope Francis, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in April, was united with the families of the victims who were suffering "unspeakable pain".
"The killing of innocent people is always a hideous and unacceptable crime, a grave obstacle on the path towards peace," Father Federico Lombardi said, calling the news of the deaths "terrible and dramatic".
The discovery of the bodies came after an extensive search involving hundreds of soldiers who had been combing the Hebron area for two weeks.
In parallel to the search, the Israeli military conducted an aggressive campaign of arrests and raids aimed at weakening the infrastructure of Hamas in the West Bank. It was the largest military operation in the West Bank in more than a decade.
Danny Danon, Israel's right-wing deputy defence minister, issued a statement promising that the government would "not stop until Hamas is completely defeated".
"We must ensure that this tragic end be turned into an opportunity to create a better and safer Israel," Mr Danon said. "Israelis have the willingness and the fortitude necessary to endure the hardships of a long-lasting operation aimed at eradicating Hamas."
He called for the demolition of "homes of the terrorists" and destruction of their weapons caches, and urged the international community to halt "all aid to the Palestinian Authority".
New York Times, AAP