JERUSALEM (AP) – Three Israeli suspects in the vigilante-style killing of a Palestinian teenager who was abducted and burned to death last week confessed to the crime on Monday and were re-enacting the incident for authorities, an official said, as the country’s leaders raced to contain a public uproar over the slaying.
The confessions came as tensions continued to rise along Israel’s volatile front with the Gaza Strip. Israeli airstrikes, launched in response to persistent rocket fire, killed at least eight Palestinian militants. The Hamas militant group vowed revenge, saying “the enemy will pay a tremendous price.”
The region has been on edge for weeks since three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank. Last week, hours after the Israeli teens were buried, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted from outside his home in east Jerusalem, and his charred remains were found shortly afterwards in a Jerusalem forest. His death triggered days of violent protests in Arab areas of Jerusalem and northern Israel.
The Jewish suspects have not been identified, and they remained in custody Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
Palestinians say that Abu Khdeir’s death was a revenge killing in response to the abductions and killings of the three Israeli teens. Abu Khdeir was abducted near his home in east Jerusalem shortly after the three were buried, and his charred remains were later found in a Jerusalem forest.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned Abu Khdeir’s death and tried to calm the public. On Monday, his office said he called Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein, to express his condolences.
“I would like to express my outrage and that of the citizens of Israel over the reprehensible murder of your son,” a statement quoted Netanyahu as saying.
“We acted immediately to apprehend the murderers. We will bring them to trial and they will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. We denounce all brutal behavior, the murder of your son is abhorrent and cannot be countenanced by any human being,” he said.
Hussein Abu Khdeir, father of the slain boy, said he was not certain he spoke to Netanyahu.
“Maybe he called, I don’t know,” he said. “Tons of people called me this morning to apologize for what happened to my son. Some of them were crying. But I don’t know if Netanyahu was one of them,” he said.
The discovery Sunday that a group of Jewish males, some of them minors, were suspected in the grisly death of Abu Khdeir, who was still alive when he was set on fire, set off nationwide anguish in Israel and raised questions about whether the charged atmosphere in the country had contributed to the killing.
“Shame. That is the word,” wrote Sima Kadmon, a commentator in the mass daily Yediot Ahronot. “For the murder of Mohammed, there is shame. Immense shame and disgrace over the fact that such a thing happened among us, we who are so certain that it could not happen among us, that only Arabs can be so cruel.”
Israel’s president, Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres, and the man who is to succeed him later this month, Reuven Rivlin, co-authored a front-page article in the same newspaper.
“In the state of Israel, there is no difference between blood and blood,” the two men wrote. “The choice is in our hands: To give in to the destructive worldview posed to us by the racists and the extremists, or to fight it unconditionally; to give in to wild and vicious Muslim or Jewish terrorists – or to put an end to it by all means possible.”
In recent weeks, Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired more than 200 rockets and mortars toward Israel, drawing dozens of Israeli airstrikes in retaliation. Nearly 30 rockets were launched Monday, including one that reached Beersheba, a major city about 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from Gaza on Monday morning.
It exploded in open field causing no injuries, the army said. It was the first time a Gaza rocket exploded in the city since a round of heavy fighting in 2012. In a separate rocket attack, an Israeli soldier was lightly wounded by shrapnel.
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, said six of its men were killed in Israeli airstrikes overnight, while two other militants were killed separately.
It was the deadliest day of fighting in the current round of hostilities, and Hamas vowed revenge.
Israel said it carried out airstrikes on at least “14 terror sites” including “concealed rocket launchers” in Gaza overnight in retaliation to a recent spike in attacks from Gaza.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the rocket attacks are “unbearable and unacceptable.”
“We will continue to act in order to debilitate and incapacitate the Hamas terror infrastructure, striking its warehouses, rocket manufacturing capabilities and those that endanger the well-being of the Israelis in the south of the country,” he said.
Meanwhile, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, dissolved a political alliance with Netanyahu, in large part because of their differences over Gaza.
Netanyahu has advocated a measured response to the rocket fire, while Lieberman has called for much tougher action. Israeli Cabinet ministers were meeting Monday to discuss the situation.
Yousur Alhlou contributed to this report.