Hebron, West Bank: Israeli troops shot dead on Tuesday two Palestinians blamed for killing three Israeli youths in the occupied West Bank in June, the military said, an incident that had spiralled into a seven-week war in Gaza.
Israel had been searching for Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha, militants in their 30s from the Hebron area, for months. They were named as the men who grabbed and shot dead the three teens who were hitchhiking at night near a Jewish settlement on June 12.
Hebron residents said troops surrounded a house in the city before dawn and reported sounds of gunfire. The military said army and police forces had located Kawasme and Abu Aysha there and were seeking their arrest, when a firefight erupted,
"We opened fire, they returned fire and they were killed in the exchange," Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said in a telephone briefing. "We have visual confirmation for one. The second one, we have no visual confirmation, but the assumption is he was killed."
Hebron Governor Kamel Hmeid said on Palestinian radio that the two were dead.
"It`s clear now the two martyrs, al-Kawasme and Abu Aysha, were assassinated this morning during a military operation in the Hebron University area. We condemn this crime, this assassination, as deliberate and premeditated murder," he said.
Kawasme and Abu Aysha were affiliated with Hamas, which initially denied any link to the attack. Last month the group acknowledged responsibility, though its leadership said they had no advance knowledge the men were going to strike.
Israeli forces began West Bank sweeps, rounding up hundreds of suspected Hamas members in house-to-house raids after the three Jewish seminary students, Eyal Yifrach, aged 19, and 16-year-olds Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, who was also a U.S. citizen, went missing.
Their bodies were found on June 30 in a field near Hebron.
The killings set off a cycle of violence, with the suspected revenge murder by three Israelis of Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khudair, 16, in Jerusalem, igniting regular clashes between Israeli police and stone-throwing Palestinians.
The arrests in the West Bank stoked hostilities with Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, where Israel launched an offensive on July 8, after a surge of rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave into Israeli territory.
Gaza medical officials say 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were also killed.