July 1, 2014

(Jerusalem) – The killing of three abducted Israeli teenagers is a deplorable act and would amount to a war crime if committed by an armed group.

Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gil’ad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, were reported missing after they tried to hitchhike home from the southern West Bank, near the Kfar Etzion settlement, on June 11, 2014, according to news reports. Israeli forces reported finding their bodies in a shallow grave north of Hebron on June 30. News reports cited “preliminary estimates” by Israeli officials that the teenagers had apparently been killed shortly after being kidnapped.

“Abducting and killing civilians is always an unjustifiable crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s appalling that the victims in this case included children.”

Human Rights Watch had condemned the abductions and called for the teenagers’ immediate and unconditional release.

The three attended Jewish religious schools in Kfar Etzion and in Kiryat Arba, another settlement, Israel media reported. One of the youths called an Israeli police hotline at about 10:25 p.m. on June 12 and said, “We’re being kidnapped,” before the call was disconnected, Israeli news media reported. 

It is not clear which, if any, of the several Palestinian armed groups that separately claimed responsibility for the abductions is responsible for the abductions or for the killings. An online post claimed that Sarayat al-Quds, the military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, had detained the Israeli teenagers. A second statement, circulated in a pamphlet in Hebron, claimed that an armed group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) had apprehended the Israelis. On June 26, Israeli authorities published the names of two Palestinian suspects they said were affiliated with Hamas and at large. Hamas has denied responsibility.

Israeli forces reportedly evicted residents from the homes of the families of two named suspects, Marwan Qawasme and Amer Abu Aisha, and detonated explosives that badly damaged Qawasme's home, near Hebron on the night of June 30. Unnecessarily damaging the homes of the suspects' families who are not alleged to have played any role in the murders would be collective punishment, Human Rights Watch said. Doing so before any suspect had even been charged, let alone tried, would show a disregard for basic due process rights.

Human Rights Watch is also investigating the Israeli military’s operations in the West Bank after June 12, which included Israeli forces’ arrests of hundreds of Palestinians, raids and property damage, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, widespread use of administrative detention, and fatal shootings of at least four Palestinians.

“The murder of three teenagers is horrifying, but it can’t justify abuses by Israeli forces,” Whitson said. “Israel’s military should respond to these awful killings in accordance with its international legal obligations.”