TEKOA, West Bank - Two schoolboys from this Jewish settlement who skipped class to go hiking in a nearby gorge were found bludgeoned to death in a cave yesterday, and police said they were killed by Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed "deep shock" at the deaths and called them an escalation of Palestinian terrorism against innocent civilians. He accused the Palestinian Authority of failing to stop the violence and of inciting murder in its official news media.
A police spokesman said that the two boys - Yaakov "Koby" Mandell, 13, formerly of Maryland, and Yosef Ishran, 14 - were battered to death with rocks. "Their heads were crushed," he said. The bloodstained rocks were found near the bodies in Wadi Haritun, a dry riverbed near Tekoa in the Judean Desert south of Bethlehem. Police said they believed that the two boys died in a chance encounter with their attackers.
The deaths came two days after a 4-month-old Palestinian baby was killed by Israeli tank fire and further roiled emotions in a week of spiraling violence that neither side seems able to control.
After the bodies were found, more than a dozen Palestinians were rounded up for questioning from the neighboring village of Tukua, and the road to the village was blocked with a trench. Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer promised to track down the killers, "one by one."
Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet, said, "The Palestinian Authority regrets the loss of life of these two boys and all children, be it Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim or Christian."
He said that "killing civilians is a crime whether on the Palestinian or the Israeli side."
But Palestinian President Yasser Arafat avoided a direct response to a reporter's question about the killing of the Israeli boys, saying that a Palestinian baby who was wounded in fighting yesterday "was exposed to the same tragedy."
He was referring to new fighting that broke out in the Gaza Strip where the baby and her mother were wounded by Israeli fire in Rafah. Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip yesterday, Israeli troops twice entered Palestinian-controlled territory near Beit Hanun, uprooting orchards and demolishing a Palestinian police post after mortars were fired into Israel. The mortars landed near Kibbutz Kfar Aza, but no one was killed.
Koby Mandell's family moved to Israel five years ago from Silver Spring, and he held both U.S. and Israeli citizenship, friends said. His aunt Loren Fogelson, of Nassau County, N.Y., said in a telephone interview yesterday: "He was a warm, loving, peace-loving, caring boy, the kind of son that every mother would love to have. Our hearts are broken. It's a nightmare."
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said the United States was outraged by the "vicious murder."
The teen-agers' bodies were discovered by search parties before dawn yesterday after the boys failed to return home Tuesday night. They skipped school and went hiking without telling their parents, who thought they had gone after classes to an evening demonstration in Jerusalem, where settlers protested what they said was the government's failure to ensure their security. When the boys failed to return by midnight, the parents alerted the security forces.
The boys went to hike in Wadi Haritun, a scenic gorge flanked by steep cliffs and caves that is a 15-minute walk from Tekoa.
Teen-agers from the settlement said that they regularly went there for hikes and bonfires, even during the recent months of Palestinian unrest, often without an armed escort required by the army. "It's our back yard," said Aviva Sutnick, 15. "We don't have too many places here for teen-agers to hang out."
Palestinian shepherds and people from neighboring Arab villages also visit the gorge, but settlers said no violence had occurred there during the recent months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Settlers reported that 100 goats were stolen Tuesday night from Tekoa, but police said they did not know whether the theft was related to the killings.
Shaul Goldstein, the head of the settler's council in the area, warned that the continuing deadly Palestinian attacks could push some settlers to seek revenge. Settlers have been a main target of the 7-month-old Palestinian uprising, and dozens have been killed or wounded, many in drive-by shootings on West Bank roads.
"If the government and the army do not respond appropriately to this criminal incident, I'm afraid that the short fuse of the settlers and the anger that has accumulated in the last seven months could ignite in an uncontrolled way," Goldstein said.
At the funeral for the two boys, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of the neighboring settlement of Efrat called for divine vengeance against "this cruel enemy that deliberately murders innocent children."
Education Minister Limor Livnat called the killings "a moral stain on the Palestinian people that will never be erased."
"This is our country, we've come home and we're here to stay," Livnat asserted. "The murderers will not stay, because we are stronger than them. With God's help, we shall win."