Israeli troops kill Palestinians responsible for teen deaths
Israeli troops on Tuesday shot dead two Palestinians blamed for killing three Israeli youths in the occupied West Bank in June, the Israeli military said. The teens’ deaths were the trigger for a seven-week war in Gaza.
Israel had been searching for Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha, both in their 30s from the Hebron area, for months. They were named as the men who abducted and killed the three teens who were hitchhiking at night near a Jewish settlement on June 12.
Hebron residents said troops surrounded a house in the city before dawn and they heard sounds of gunfire. The military said army and police forces had located Kawasme and Abu Aysha there and were seeking their arrest when a firefight erupted.
“We opened fire, they returned fire and they were killed in the exchange,” Israeli military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said in a telephone briefing. “We have visual confirmation for one. The second one, we have no visual confirmation, but the assumption is he was killed.”
Hebron governor Kamel Hmeid said on Palestinian radio that the two were dead.
“It’s clear now the two martyrs, al-Kawasme and Abu Aysha, were assassinated this morning during a military operation in the Hebron University area. We condemn this crime – this assassination – as deliberate and premeditated murder,” he said.
Kawasme and Abu Aysha were affiliated with Hamas, which initially denied any link to the attack. Last month the group acknowledged responsibility, though its leadership said they had no advance knowledge the men were going to strike.
Israeli forces began West Bank sweeps, rounding up hundreds of suspected Hamas members in house-to-house raids after the three Jewish seminary students, Eyal Yifrach (19), and 16-year-olds Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, who was also a United States citizen, went missing.
Their bodies were found on June 30 in a field near Hebron.
The killings set off a cycle of violence, with the suspected revenge murder by three Israelis of Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khudair (16), in Jerusalem, igniting regular clashes between Israeli police and stone-throwing Palestinians.
The arrests in the West Bank stoked hostilities with Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and where Israel launched an offensive on July 8, after a surge of rockets were fired from the Palestinian enclave into Israeli territory.
Gaza medical officials say 2 100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were also killed.
Sporadic clashes between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers continued during the day, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said, but ceased briefly during the funerals of Kawasme and Abu Aysha.
Some 3 000 mourners attended the processions and burials, with many waving the flags of the Hamas movement, which also has a large support base in Hebron.
The Shin Bet said in a statement the army had also arrested several other Palestinians who had helped hide Kawasme and Abu Aysha after the teens were killed.
“Troops also arrested Bashar Kawasme, Mahmud Kawasme and Taer Kawasme, the sons of Arafat Kawasme who was himself arrested on July 14 on charges of helping the killers hide after the murder of the teens,” it said.
‘No longer a threat’
The suspects “no longer pose a threat to Israeli civilians,” Lerner said on Twitter, posting pictures of the two men.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the operation, saying the suspects had been “dealt with”.
“I said that whoever perpetrated the kidnapping and murder of our boys would bear the consequences ... that we would pursue the enemy, find them and not return until they had been dealt with,” he said in a statement.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were to discuss a more permanent truce in Cairo beginning Tuesday, but a Palestinian official said the killings of Kawasme and Abu Aysha had almost scuppered the talks.
“The killing of the two youths in Hebron is causing a crisis, and could lead to the Palestinian delegation not attending indirect talks with the Israeli team,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
However, later a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said that talks would continue despite the killing of the two men.
“After consultations within the Palestinian delegation and brothers in Gaza and abroad it was decided to continue the Cairo meetings,” he said.
Rachel Frenkel, the mother of 16-year-old Naftali, said she was relieved not to have to face his killers in court.
“I’m not all that sorry that I won’t encounter their laughing faces in a courtroom,” she told army radio.
The army had already partially destroyed the two suspects’ homes on July 1, a day after the teenagers’ bodies were found. The demolitions were completed in August.
Earlier this month, Israel charged the prime suspect in the teens’ murders, Hossam Kawasme, with organising and financing their kidnapping. – Reuters, AFP