A recording of a top Hamas official admitting the terror group was behind the June kidnapping and slaying of three Israeli teens in the West Bank emerged Wednesday, representing the strongest evidence yet of Hamas involvement in the attack.
Sheikh Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas religious figure, is heard on the video saying that he “blessed the heroic action” which was “carried out by the al-Qassam Brigades” — the armed wing of Hamas. This action, “the kidnapping to Hebron of the three settlers,” was an “operation spoken of far and wide,” al-Arouri added.
The sheikh was speaking at a conference of Muslim scholars in Turkey.
“There are those who say that it was your brothers in the al-Qassam Brigades, who carried it out for the sake of al-Qassam members who are in jails and who sit in a hunger strike,” al-Arouri continued, according to a Hebrew translation provided by Channel 2.
Hamas has denied involvement in the plot, but has long called for the kidnapping of Israelis, in order to exchange them for members held in Israeli jails.
Israel has accused Hamas of being behind the June 12 abduction and killing of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. The three were last seen at a hitchhiking post outside the settlement of Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem.
The abduction sparked a massive search operation and crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, with hundreds of members arrested.
Israeli officials said earlier this month that they arrested Hussam Kawasme, suspected of being the ringleader of the cell that carried out the attack. Kawasme reportedly admitted to interrogators that the group received funding from Hamas operatives in order to carry out the operation. The other two members of the cell, Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, who are thought to have carried out the killing, are still at large.
The bodies of the three teens were found near Hebron on June 30, sparking anti-Arab protests.
Tensions further ratcheted up after an East Jerusalem teen was killed by a Jewish Israeli in an apparent revenge attack, sparking days of unrest throughout the country and in the West Bank and heavy rocket fire on Israel.
On July 8, Israel launched the ongoing Operation Protective Edge to stymie the rocket fire with airstrikes and carried out a limited ground incursion into Gaza to destroy a network of cross-border attack tunnels.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.