Jerusalem - Israel vowed on Tuesday to hunt down the Hamas militants it holds responsible for kidnapping and killing three teenagers, but was likely to carefully weigh its response to avoid triggering a regional flareup.
As further details emerged of the fate of the three youngsters whose bodies were found in the southern West Bank on Monday evening, Israel said it would not rest until it finds their killers.
But despite extensive Israeli air strikes on Gaza overnight, no one was killed, with Israel's military establishment and cabinet heavyweight backing a more measured response over isolated calls for a major operation in the territory.
The disappearance of two 16-year-olds and a 19-year-old from a roadside in the southern West Bank on June 12 and the hunt for their kidnappers had gripped the Israeli public, triggering an outpouring of public grief and anger.
The discovery of their bodies was given blanket coverage across all media outlets. “The bitter end” read the headline in top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper, while the pro-government Israel Hayom freesheet led on: “Cut down in their youth”.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon vowed the deaths would not go unavenged.
“Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of the youths and we know how to settle accounts with them,” Yaalon said.
“We will continue to hunt the killers of the youngsters, we will not rest nor will we be silent until we lay our hands on them.”
Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza during the night, hitting 34 targets across the enclave, the military said.
Palestinian medics told AFP four people were wounded in the southern city of Khan Yunis, describing their condition as moderate to serious.
“They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by human animals,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers at the start of an emergency security cabinet meeting on Monday evening.
“Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.”
But the three-hour meeting ended inconclusively, with ministers sharply at odds over the right course of action, army radio's diplomatic correspondent reported.
An Israeli official familiar with the content of the meeting confirmed reports that Yaalon suggested a “measured” response which would not lead to an escalation with Gaza, and Netanyahu was inclined to accept his position.
The security cabinet did not vote on Yaalon's proposal and was expected to reconvene on Tuesday evening.
Hamas has warned that Israel would “open the gates of hell” if it carried out any reprisal operations against the Islamist movement, whose power base is in Gaza.
The three young students were shot dead shortly after they were picked up while hitchhiking on a road in the southern West Bank, according to media reports.
Israel's Shin Bet internal security service said the bodies had been buried in a field near Halhul, just north of the flashpoint city of Hebron, some 10 minutes from where they were last seen.
A joint funeral was set for 1430 GMT in the central Israeli town of Modiin, with Netanyahu expected to attend, after separate ceremonies in the home towns of each victim.
Gilad Shaer, 16, was from Talmon settlement near the West Bank city of Ramallah; Naftali Frenkel, 16, was from Nof Ayalon, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, from Elad - both in central Israel.
Two Hebron Hamas men named by Israel as prime suspects - Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Eishe - remain at large.
Palestinian witnesses said troops blew up their homes early Tuesday.
In the hours after the teens' disappearance, Israel launched a vast search and arrest operation which saw 419 Palestinians arrested, of whom 276 are Hamas members.
Five Palestinians were killed in clashes triggered by the operation.
Simultaneously, militants in Gaza began firing a wave of rockets at southern Israel which has since escalated, prompting Israel to stage dozens of retaliatory air strikes.
Overnight, eight rockets hit the south, without causing any casualties or damage, the army said.
In the northern West Bank city of Jenin, troops shot dead a Palestinian early Tuesday.
Palestinian medics identified him as Yusuf Abu Zagher, 18.
The Israeli army said he was a Hamas operative who had been about to hurl an explosive device at troops sent to arrest him.
US President Barack Obama condemned the killings of the three teenagers but warned against actions that could further “destabilise” the situation.
UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said it was a “heinous act by enemies of peace” that “must not be allowed to succeed.” - AFP