Hamas has warned Israel against waging war on the Gaza strip in retaliation for the deaths of three kidnapped Israeli youths, threatening that “the gates of hell will open” should action be taken.
The response came after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed: “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay”, following the discovery of the bodies of the three missing youths yesterday.
The Israeli military struck 34 targets across the Gaza Strip overnight after more than 20 rockets were fired from the territory into Israel since late Sunday.
Hamas, however, responded warning against any broad offensive on the territory. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “Netanyahu should know that threats don’t scare Hamas, and if he wages a war on Gaza, the gates of hell will open on him.”
Mr Netanyahu said the teenagers “were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by human animals”, as he convened an emergency meeting of his security cabinet.
According to reports Israeli troops flooded into the Palestinian town of Halhul where the bodies of the three kidnapped teenagers were found.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, disappeared on June 12 while hitchhiking home from the Jewish seminaries where they were studying near the West Bank city of Hebron.
Despite the dangers, hitchhiking is common among Israelis travelling in and out of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In an operation codenamed Brother’s Keeper, Israel dispatched thousands of troops across the West Bank in search of the youths, closed roads in the area and arrested 400 Hamas operatives throughout the territory.
The search ended yesterday afternoon with the discovery of the bodies under a pile of rocks in a field north of Hebron.
Israel has identified two well-known Hamas operatives from Hebron as the primary suspects.
The men, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh, remain on the run and military officials said the search for them would continue.
The search for the teenagers became a national obsession. Israeli media delivered round-the-clock updates, senior officials held daily televised briefings and Israelis held prayer vigils.
The mothers of the three teenagers became public figures as they campaigned for their sons’ return, at one point travelling to Geneva to address the UN Human Rights Council.
News of their deaths prompted an outpouring of grief. Large crowds of supporters rushed to the homes of the families in the central Israeli towns of Nof Ayalon and Elad, and the West Bank settlement of Talmon, while supporters lit memorial candles and prayed.
Israelis are this evening preparing to bury three teenagers who were kidnapped over two weeks ago amid a surge of violence that has followed the discovery of their bodies.
The Israeli army said the air force has targeted dozens of locations in the Gaza Strip. Troops also shot dead a Palestinian man in the West Bank, where the young people disappeared on June 12.
Video: The last call from Israeli teenagers.
In Washington, president Barack Obama sent his “deepest and heartfelt condolences” to the families. “As a father, I cannot imagine the indescribable pain that the parents of these teenage boys are experiencing,” he said. Yet he urged “all parties” to refrain from steps that could further destabilise the situation.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon issued a similar condemnation of the “heinous crime”, but also urged the sides to “refrain from any actions that could further escalate this highly tense situation”.
Israel’s military said a Palestinian was shot dead when he threw a grenade at forces carrying out an arrest raid hours after the discovery of the bodies of the Israeli teenagers.
A spokesman said the clash occurred in the West Bank town of Jenin. It was the first casualty since the bodies were found.