Israel weighs strikes on Hamas in West Bank, Gaza after teenagers found dead

Dan Ephron

Candles placed next to a picture of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted and killed, in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square June 30, 2014. Israeli forces found the bodies of the three missing teenagers in the occupied West Bank on Monday after a nearly three-week-long search and a sweep against the Islamist Hamas group that Israel says abducted them. (REUTERS/Nir Elias)

 The Israeli government is weighing a possible broad offensive against Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after soldiers on Monday discovered the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who went missing 18 days ago — though it appears to have few good options for dealing with the Islamic group.

A team that included infantry soldiers and civilian volunteers spotted the remains of young men during a search near the city of Hebron in the southern West Bank. They were buried near a dirt road, under a layer of brush and stones, according to people who participated in the search. The three appeared to have been shot.

The discovery ended a wrenching drama for Israel that began with the June 12 disappearance of the three young men, aged 16 to 19. Israel accused Hamas of abducting the teens, who studied at religious seminaries in settlements in the West Bank and had been hitchhiking when they were grabbed. Hamas neither confirmed nor denied responsibility, but its top officials praised the kidnapping.

The ordeal prompted an Israeli sweep against the group in the Hebron area, where the youngsters had been last seen — the broadest incursion in more than a decade. Soldiers killed at least five Palestinians in and around the city over the past two weeks, including a 15-year-old boy, and arrested more than 300 people. It also triggered calls within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for an aggressive campaign against Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis over the years in suicide bombings and other attacks.

Netanyahu convened his security Cabinet after nightfall to hear what intelligence officials had pieced together regarding the kidnapping and discuss the range of possible measures against Hamas. Before it commenced, several members of his government said they sought a decision to destroy the group altogether.

“Israelis have the willingness and the fortitude necessary to endure the hardships of a long-lasting operation aimed at eradicating Hamas,” said Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon in a statement.

“Israelis have the willingness and the fortitude necessary to endure the hardships of a long-lasting operation aimed at eradicating Hamas,” said Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon in a statement.

“We will not stop until Hamas is completely defeated. The homes of the terrorists must be demolished and their arms caches destroyed,” he said.

Danon is a member of Netanyahu’s own center-right Likud Party. His governing coalition also includes the far-right Jewish Home Party, whose representatives are expected to take an even tougher stand in the Cabinet meeting.

But while Netanyahu himself has made strong statements against Hamas, his options for dealing with the group appeared to be limited, according to military experts.

The group’s forces are concentrated in the Gaza Strip, a territory Hamas has controlled since 2007. Israeli warplanes have struck Gaza regularly over the years, usually in response to rocket attacks from the Palestinian territory. But a broader offensive against the Gaza Strip would entail certain complications for Israel.

For one thing, it would draw barrages of rocket fire on Israel’s big cities, including Tel Aviv. In Israel’s 2012 offensive against Gaza, Hamas fired more than 1,500 rockets at Israel, killing four civilians.

And any real bid to destroy Hamas’ caches would require Israel to send ground troops to Gaza, an endeavor that would likely be bloody and unpopular.

“If the goal is to create large-scale damage to the infrastructure in Gaza, it can be done from the air,” says Shaul Shay, a retired colonel and former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council. “But if the goal is to change the strategic environment, you need boots on the ground.”

Shay said that even if Netanyahu was willing to fight a ground war in Gaza, soldiers would have to remain in the Gaza Strip for months or longer to ensure Hamas does not reconstitute its capabilities — a commitment few Israeli politicians are willing to make.

The Cabinet meeting was expected to run into the night.

Israeli media said the three teens — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 — appeared to have been killed soon after their abduction. Fraenkel held both Israeli and American citizenship. Security officials initially assessed that Hamas would try to trade the seminary students for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, but no offer was made.

In 2011, Israel freed more than 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for the return of Gilad Shalit, a soldier grabbed five years earlier near the Gaza border.

Israeli security officials had named two suspects in the current kidnapping, both Hamas activists from the Hebron area. Soldiers raided their homes several times over the past two weeks and detained family members for questioning.