Thousands of Israelis have attended an emotional funeral for three missing settlers found dead near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, as the Israeli government debated a response to the killings.
The settlers, Gilad Shaar, 16; Naftali Fraenkel, 16; and Eyal Yifrah, 19, disappeared on June 12 while hitchhiking home from a religious school in Kfar Etzion, an illegal settlement between Bethlehem and Hebron, and were last heard in a brief emergency call to police.
Their bodies were found near the West Bank village of Halhoul on Monday night.
The mood at the funeral in the city of Modi’in on Tuesday was sombre, if not angry. Mourners, many of them young, wanted revenge but were vague about what form it should take. “We need to send a message, and we need to be sure that [these three] did not die for nothing,” said Yehuda Stern, a local resident.
Elsewhere, though, the tone at demonstrations was much harsher. More than 20 people were arrested at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem, where protesters chanted: "Death to the Arabs." Two Palestinian men were attacked overnight in the city, and police are investigating whether the assaults were hate crimes.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians mourned the death of a 19-year-old Palestinian man shot dead by Israeli forces during a raid in Jenin refugee camp in the occupied territory.
The killing took place hours after the discovery of the bodies of the three settlers.
The day’s developments came even as Israel debated how to respond to the death of the three settlers.
Members of the security cabinet gathered in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night for their second meeting in 24 hours. At their first meeting, a day earlier, ministers were sharply divided on how to attack Hamas, which Israel has blamed for the settlers’ abductions.
The Israeli air force bombed nearly three dozen targets in Gaza on Monday night, but Economy Minister Naftali Bennett wanted a much larger military offensive.
He was opposed by several other ministers, including the Defence chief, Moshe Ya’alon. Channel 10 reported on Tuesday that the army has “no smoking gun” linking Hamas to the kidnappings, an admission echoed by security officials in conversations over the past two weeks.
In a statement before Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to side with Ya’alon, saying that attacks in Gaza would only expand “if need be”.
“The IDF has been active in recent days against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip … if need be, we will expand the campaign,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Israeli army. “Anyone who thinks that they can achieve anything by using terrorism against us will continue to be mistaken and will achieve the opposite results.”
However, analysts say, Israel will try to exploit the death of the three settlers to scuttle last month’s reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah which it opposed.
“The reconciliation agreement is exhausted. It did not work. [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is in a desperate position,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah and a former government spokesman. “Netanyahu is interested in weakening the Palestinian Authority, but keeping it alive, and killing the reconciliation deal.”
'Proper Zionist reponse'
Several cabinet members have called for a “proper Zionist response” to the killings, a euphemism for building new illegal settlements. Ha’aretz reported that Ya’alon proposed building a new settlement near the site of the abduction.
The army has also revived the practice of punitive home demolitions, which was largely discontinued in 2005. On Monday night soldiers destroyed the homes of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, two Hebron-area men whom Israel has named as the lead suspects in the kidnappings.
On Tuesday, the High Court refused to issue an injunction to block a third home demolition. A Palestinian man, Ziad Awad, has been charged with the April murder of an Israeli police officer; the army could demolish his family home as early as Tuesday night. Awad, like Qawasmeh and Abu Aisha, has not yet been convicted of any crime.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called the demolitions counterproductive, saying they would do nothing to improve Israeli security. Some military officials agree: The practice was halted in 2005 after the defence ministry concluded that the demolitions, which are illegal under international law, also had no deterrent value.
“This is a government of political blindness … that would lead to desperate acts, because desperation will always take us to desperate acts,” Erekat said.
With reporting from Gregg Carlstrom in Modi'in and Rania Zabaneh in Ramallah.