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Three abducted Israeli teenagers found dead

Mourners lit candles in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv after it was announced the bodies of three missing Israeli teenagers had been found.

AFP/Getty Images

Mourners lit candles in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv after it was announced the bodies of three missing Israeli teenagers had been found.

JERUSALEM — Israeli searchers on Monday found the bodies of three missing Israeli teenagers who were abducted more than two weeks ago in the occupied West Bank, the government of Israel said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency Cabinet meeting as calls for a tough response escalated. The meeting ended after midnight without any decision reached, and discussions will resume Tuesday.

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“With very heavy sorrow we found three bodies this evening and all the signs point to them being the bodies of our three kidnapped youths,” Netanyahu said.

Early Tuesday, Israel carried out an especially intense series of airstrikes in Gaza, saying it had struck 34 targets across the Hamas-controlled territory, according to the Associated Press. The military said the airstrikes were a response to a barrage of 18 rockets fired into Israel since late Sunday.

Israeli forces will ‘‘continue to act in order to restore the peaceful living to the civilians of the state of Israel. The Hamas terror organization and its extensions are solely responsible for any terror activities emanating from the Gaza Strip,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a senior spokesman for the Israeli military.

There were no further details on the targets, but in recent weeks Israel has repeatedly targeted launch sites and weapons storage areas in similar attacks. There were no immediate reports of casualties, the AP reported.

Earlier, Lerner said the three bodies were found at 5 p.m. “under a pile of rocks in an open field” between Halhul and Beit Kahil, two Palestinian towns near Hebron.

The location was an area that thousands of soldiers had been scouring for more than a week. The bodies “are being transferred for forensic identification,” Lerner said. “We have informed the families that we found the bodies.”

The disappearances set off an uproar in Israel and further strained relations between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, even though it had deployed its own security forces to help with the search.

The Palestinian Authority had just taken steps to form a unity government backed by Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials, who have rejected that government, have identified as prime suspects two Palestinians from Hebron that they say are affiliated with Hamas.

Hamas did not take responsibility, but praised the abductions and bitterly criticized the Palestinian Authority for cooperating in the search. At one point, Palestinians smashed several of the authority’s police cars and stormed its police station in the central square of Ramallah, where it is based.

The intensity and scope of the Israeli security operation to find the missing teenagers was the biggest in the West Bank in more than a decade, and has left at least five Palestinians dead.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, said that Abbas had called an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership to assess the consequences of the latest developments.

Lerner said he could not confirm that the victims had been shot, though a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they had been, most likely shortly after the abduction.

In Hebron, Israeli soldiers returned Monday night to the home of Israel’s two prime suspects in the kidnapping, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha.

As word spread that the military might demolish the homes, about 100 Palestinians gathered, some throwing stones at the soldiers, who fired at least six tear-gas canisters to disperse the crowd and blocked the roads around the two houses.

Israeli television reports said the bodies had been discovered by volunteers, guides from the Kfar Etzion Field School. The television accounts said the bodies had been partly covered and appeared to have been dumped hurriedly, probably soon after the abduction.

The three teenagers — Eyal Yifrach, 19; Gilad Shaar, 16; and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also holds US citizenship — were last seen entering a car about 10 p.m. June 12 at a hitchhiking stop in the Gush Etzion settlement block, not far from the area where the bodies were found.

One of the abducted youths placed an emergency call to the police and whispered that he had been kidnapped, but the police initially thought it was a prank call.

The search only started hours later when some of the parents reported their sons missing.

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