Tel Aviv – The Israeli army has recovered the bodies of three settlers who went missing in the occupied West Bank earlier this month, triggering fears of a broader military crackdown.
The bodies were found in a field near the village of Halhoul on Monday, not far from where Israeli troops first started searching after they vanished on June 12.
“Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay,” said Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement.
The Israeli army launched at least two dozen air strikes in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Tuesday following the discovery of the bodies. The army said the attacks were in response to from Palestinian rocket fire.
The young settlers were 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 disappearance set off the largest military operation in the West Bank since the end of the second Intifada: More than 400 Palestinians were detained in the 18-day search, thousands of homes raided, and five people killed by Israeli gunfire.
Israel has blamed Hamas for the murders, though it has offered no evidence to support that claim.
On Monday night it demolished the homes of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, two Hebron-area residents who the Israeli government has named as suspects.
The use of punitive demolitions revived a practice that was almost entirely discontinued in 2005.
The Israeli security cabinet also held an emergency meeting on Monday night, which ended with no major decisions on further actions, according to a government source. The cabinet will reconvene on Tuesday.
Some politicians have called for harsher steps against Hamas, including targeted assassinations. “I don’t know how many leaders of Hamas will remain alive after tonight,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, the deputy foreign minister.
The group dismissed the accusations in a statement, calling them propaganda. “We warn Israel against any stupid action. If Israel wants a war, the price they will pay will be greater than in previous wars,” it said.
The settlers’ bodies were found at a time of heightened tensions in the south, with daily air strikes and rocket launches, and Israeli troops preparing for a possible military offensive.
In conversations over the past two weeks, security officials have hinted at “retaliating” against Gaza if the settlers were found dead.
The PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi told Al Jazeera that the “Israeli escalation already took place, and now they have an excuse of further escalation.”
Hundreds of people gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Monday night to hold a vigil for the trio. The mood was far more angry in the West Bank, and there were reports of Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians in several villages.