Joel Greenberg

JERUSALEM: The Israeli government debated possible retaliatory action for the killings of three Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found Monday in the West Bank more than two weeks after the students vanished while hitchhiking home from their religious schools.

A meeting of the Israeli security Cabinet ended early this morning with no decisions announced, reflecting division among senior ministers about what form the Israeli reaction should take. Hawkish ministers advocated tough punitive measures, while others counseled restraint, according to reports from the meeting.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had threatened the militant group Hamas with retaliation for the teens’ deaths. “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,” he said.

But it was not immediately clear what action Israel could take. Beyond Netanyahu’s accusations of Hamas responsibilities, there is no evident link between the abduction and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. No group has claimed responsibility for the teens’ disappearances and murders.

Israeli forces already have launched a broad crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting more than 400 people and raiding charities, social welfare institutions, media offices and student groups suspected of links to the Islamist faction.

Israeli military officials said they were focusing their efforts on finding the two suspected kidnappers, identified by Israel’s Shin Ben security service as Hamas operatives from the West Bank city of Hebron. Reports from the city said troops were surrounding their family homes and that some family members had been detained.

The two suspects also have been missing since the Israeli teenagers disappeared on June 12. One of the teenagers managed to call an emergency police line, whispering that he had been kidnapped, but the responders dismissed the call as a prank after several efforts to call the teen back went unanswered.

On Monday the bodies of the youths were found by search volunteers and soldiers in a field northwest of Hebron, military officials said. The three teenagers had been shot, apparently shortly after they boarded the kidnappers’ car on a road in the neighboring Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Israeli news outlets reported.

The dead teens were identified as Eyal Yifrah, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16. Fraenkel had dual Israeli-American citizenship.

After news of their deaths were reported, friends flocked to their families’ homes, and teens in Gush Etzion gathered near the site of the kidnapping, lighting memorial candles and singing mournful songs.