Israeli forces stormed a West Bank hideout early on Tuesday and killed two Palestinians suspected in the fatal abduction of three Israeli teens in June, one of the incidents that ultimately sparked the Gaza war this summer, an Israeli military spokesman said.
The deaths of the two Hamas activists ended one of the largest manhunts conducted by the Israeli security forces.
The June 12 abductions had prompted a large Israeli crackdown on the Islamic militant Hamas group and set off a chain of events that led to a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
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 security forces to the hideout in an area of the West Bank city of Hebron about a week ago.
Early on Tuesday, Israeli troops entered the ground floor of the two-story building and killed the two men 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.
The three Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship — were abducted from a West Bank hitchhiking post on June 12, setting off a manhunt in which Israel dispatched forces across the West Bank and arrested hundreds of Hamas activists.
The bodies were found in a West Bank field July 1. Officials later said it was presumed the three had been killed shortly after the abduction.
An alleged mastermind has been arrested, but the two prime suspects, Abu Aisheh and Qawasmeh, had remained at large.
For weeks, Hamas denied involvement. However, during the Israel-Hamas war, an exiled Hamas leader responsible for West Bank operations acknowledged his group had been responsible for the abductions.
In the days leading up to the start of the Gaza war in early July, a Palestinian youth was also abducted and killed in the West Bank by Israeli extremists in an apparent revenge attack over the teens’ slaying.