Israeli special forces who stormed a West Bank hide-out have killed two Palestinians suspected of the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, the killings which set off a chain of events that led to a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, were abducted on June 12 while hitchhiking home in the West Bank and killed soon afterward. The deaths of the two suspects, named as Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh by Hamas, ended one of the largest manhunts conducted by the Israeli security forces.
In an operation codenamed "Brother's Keeper," Israel dispatched thousands of troops across the West Bank in search of the youths, closed roads in the Hebron area and arrested hundreds of Hamas militants .
The search ended July 1st, when the bodies were found under a pile of rocks in a field north of the West Bank city of Hebron. Officials later said it was believed the three had been killed shortly after the abduction.
Israeli forces had been pursuing the suspects, Amer Abu Aisheh and Marwan Qawasmeh, since the abductions, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman.
Lerner told reporters that there was a recent breakthrough in the search that led the Yamam, a special police counter- terrorism unit, to the hideout in an area of Hebron about a week ago.
Early on Tuesday, the Israeli special forces entered the ground floor of the two-story building and killed two Hamas operatives after coming under fire, Lerner said.
The military believes both men were killed, though troops confirmed the killing of only one suspect. Lerner said the second suspect fell backward in a hail of fire and is presumed dead, though the body has not yet been recovered.
Lerner noted the two men had been identified as the suspects early in the search, their Hamas connections were well known, and Hamas has repeatedly tried to abduct Israeli civilians and soldiers. Another three members of one the Qawasmeh family were arrested, he said.
"We were determined in bringing the ruthless murderers of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali to justice," Lerner said. "Today's successful mission brings the long-term search to an end, and the perpetrators of the crime no longer pose a threat to Israeli civilians," he said.
In Qatar, Hussam Badran, a spokesman for top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, praised the two militants on his Twitter account. "The martyrdom of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisheh came after a long life full of jihad sacrifice and giving. This is the path of resistance, which we all are moving in," he said.
Hamas denied involvement for weeks after the teens were abducted. However, during the Israel-Hamas war, an exiled Hamas leader responsible for West Bank operations acknowledged his group had been responsible for the abduction and killing of the teenagers.
In the days leading up to the start of the Gaza war in early July, a Palestinian youth was also abducted and killed in east Jerusalem by Israeli extremists in an apparent revenge attack over the teen.