THOUSANDS of mourners have attended the joint funeral for three teenagers abducted and murdered while hitch-hiking in Israel’s occupied West Bank.
The youths’ bodies were found on Monday night, more than two weeks after they went missing on 12 June.
Israel has blamed the Palestinian militant group Hamas for the deaths. Hamas has denied any involvement.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Hamas will be made to pay a price for the deaths of the three teenagers, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19.
Speaking at the joint funeral in the town of Modiin in central Israel yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said: “A broad moral gulf separates us from our enemy. They sanctify death, we sanctify life.
“This day has spontaneously become a national day of mourning. The whole nation prayed for the boys to come home… The whole nation stood together and was reminded of who we are, why we are here.”
Hundreds of people participated in separate memorial services in the hometowns of the three teenagers before the joint funeral. Laid on stretchers and wrapped in blue-and-white Israeli flags, the bodies were to be laid to rest together.
Shirel Shaar, Gilad’s younger sister, said: “Recently, the people of Israel went through a great trauma. We are living as if we are in a movie, whose ending is as bad as can be. I don’t have a brother anymore.”
Finance minister Yair Lapid said: “We are burying a child today, a child who could have been the child of anyone of us. Therefore he is indeed the child of each and every one of us.”
The three teenagers were abducted while hitchhiking home from the Jewish seminaries where they were studying near the West Bank city of Hebron.
The disappearances prompted the Israeli army to launch its largest ground operation in the West Bank in nearly a decade, dispatching thousands of troops to search for them. Nearly 400 Hamas members were arrested during the operation.
The bodies were found buried under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron.
Israel has said two well-known Hamas operatives from Hebron are the primary suspects in the teenagers’ killings. The men, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, have not been seen since the three youths went missing.
Meanwhile, police yesterday released a recording of an emergency call made by one of the teenagers shortly after the abduction took place.
“They kidnapped me,” a voice, believed to be that of Gilad Shaar, can be heard saying. Another male voice is then heard, shouting, “head down”.
The crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank has been accompanied by a spike in rocket fire out of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
After the bodies were found, Palestinian militants fired eight rockets into Israel, the army said.
The Israeli air force carried out airstrikes on 34 targets, including a Hamas compound, the military said. Last night Palestinian officials said four people had been wounded.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed a 20-year-old Palestinian man during a raid in the northern town of Jenin. Israel said the man had thrown a grenade at the troops. But his family said he had been carrying eggs home for a pre-dawn meal before the daylight fast for the Ramadan holiday.
Israel has not yet decided how it will respond to the deaths of the youths. The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz said defence minister Moshe Yaalon had proposed building a settlement in the West Bank in memory of the teens. Another minister, Naftali Bennett, proposed a large-scale military operation in Gaza and to begin using the death penalty against Palestinian militants.
Israel is also reportedly considering deporting senior Hamas members from the West Bank to Gaza, where they would face tight travel restrictions and be separated from their families.
In Jerusalem yesterday, several hundred right-wing Israeli youths, many of them Orthodox Jews, marched along a main road, screaming for revenge.