JERUSALEM — Israeli aircraft carried out more than 30 strikes on militant targets in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday, the army said, as the government weighed a broader response to the killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.
Tens of thousands attended the funeral of the three youths, which was broadcast live on national television, as troops intensified their searches in the West Bank for two Palestinians suspected in the slayings.
The Israeli security Cabinet met for a second time late Tuesday to consider further action in response to the killings.
In a statement before the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to track down the killers and continue a crackdown in the West Bank on Hamas, the militant Islamist group he’s accused of the abductions and slayings.
“Hamas is responsible and Hamas is paying, and will continue to pay,” Netanyahu said. He added that if necessary Israel was prepared to “broaden the campaign” on “Hamas targets” in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli military officials, however, called the Gaza strikes a response to rocket fire and didn’t link them to the killings of the teens, suggesting that the abductions may have been locally organized in the West Bank and not ordered by Hamas leaders in Gaza.
Authorities released a tape recording of an emergency call to police by one of the teenagers immediately after they were seized, which suggested they were slain soon after they boarded the kidnappers’ car. The audiotape, with sounds of screams and apparent gunshots, fueled a raging controversy over the police responders’ dismissal of the message as a crank call.
The teenagers’ bodies were found Monday under a pile of rocks in terraced farmland northwest of the West Bank city of Hebron after more than two weeks of intensive searches. The youths had gone missing June 12 while hitchhiking home from religious schools they attended in the West Bank.
There’s been no claim of responsibility for the killings. Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency has named two suspects who are still at large, saying they’re Hamas operatives from Hebron.
Speaking at a memorial ceremony before the funeral, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon vowed to capture and “settle accounts” with the kidnappers.
“The leaders of Hamas and their men should know that whoever dares to harm Israeli citizens will bear the responsibility,” Yaalon said.
“They should know that we will pursue them wherever they are and hit them hard.”
The army said the airstrikes in Hamas-controlled Gaza were a response to the firing of more than 18 rockets at Israel by militants in the coastal territory since Sunday. A military statement said 34 targets had been hit in a “precision strike,” thought to be the most intense air attack in Gaza since an eight-day bombardment campaign against Hamas in 2012.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said a Hamas military compound had been hit in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip and the objectives included offices, command facilities and ammunition stockpiles. “We don’t want to escalate, but Hamas has to step up and stop the rocket fire from Gaza,” he said.
Palestinians reported that the training camps of six militant factions had been hit in separate strikes across the Gaza Strip. The bases had been evacuated in anticipation of an Israeli attack, but the Gaza Health Ministry reported that the blasts wounded four workers in nearby greenhouses.
There have been daily exchanges of rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in the past two weeks in tandem with the rising tensions in the West Bank triggered by the abductions of the youths.
As the teenagers – Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gilad Shaer, 16 – were laid to rest in a mass funeral, controversy swirled over the release of an audio recording of the call Shaer made to an emergency police line shortly after the teens were seized.
In the recording, Shaer can be heard saying quickly, “They kidnapped me,” before someone shouts in Arabic-accented Hebrew, “Head down, head down!” and “That’s it, it’s over!” Sounds resembling silencer-muffled gunshots are then heard, along with cries from one of the teens. The police can be heard repeatedly saying, “Hello?” and “Where are you now?”
The police tried to call back eight times, but when they got no answer they didn’t report the exchange, dismissing it as a prank. A police investigation led to the sacking of four officers involved, but the release of the audio, an excerpt of a longer recording, refueled the controversy.
Facing public outrage over the killings and pressure from hawkish ministers to hit back hard, Netanyahu is trying to craft a response that will appear firm without dragging Israel into a costlier and wider conflict, commentators said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Tuesday for a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip to cripple Hamas.
Zeev Elkin, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party who’s the chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, demanded the death penalty for the kidnappers, demolition of their families’ homes and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Writing in the liberal daily Haaretz, Amos Harel, the paper’s military correspondent, said Netanyahu would have to “formulate a series of responses that will prove to public opinion that he . . . is still tough on Hamas, without being dragged into an extended military entanglement.”
“The declared aim is to deter the Palestinians, but the more practical goal of the government is placating the Israelis,” Harel said. “Tough action can curb the domestic rage.”
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, warned Israel against launching a broad offensive in the territory, where militants are thought to have stockpiles of rockets that can reach deep into Israel.
“Netanyahu should know that threats don’t scare Hamas, and if he wages war on Gaza, the gates of hell will open on him,” he said.
Israeli forces carried out extensive sweeps in the West Bank after the teenagers disappeared, arresting more than 400 Palestinians, most of them suspected Hamas operatives.
Israeli troops have shot and killed six Palestinians in street clashes triggered by the raids, which also targeted charities, social welfare institutions, media offices and student groups suspected of links to Hamas.
In the most recent lethal incident, troops killed a 16-year-old Palestinian early Tuesday in clashes set off by an arrest raid in the Jenin refugee camp, Palestinians reported. The Israeli army said soldiers had fired on a Hamas militant who was trying to toss a grenade.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.