JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers, enraged by the brutal killings of two teenage boys whose battered bodies were discovered Wednesday morning near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, called for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to declare Yasser Arafat an enemy and destroy the Palestinian Authority.
The boys had ditched school Tuesday to hike in the Judean desert near their settlement. Security officials said the boys were attacked by at least three assailants who beat their heads against rocks and then smeared their blood on the walls of a cave in which the bodies were found.
The Bush administration quickly denounced the slayings of the boys, who were 13 and 14.
"The United States is outraged and condemns in the strongest possible terms the vicious murder of two youths today, one of whom was Yaakov Nathan Mandell, an American citizen," said U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, referring by name to the 13-year-old, who had emigrated from Maryland five years ago.
In a statement, Indyk said Israeli-Palestinian fighting had claimed the lives of too many children and that it is "time to put an end to this violence."
The slayings, discovered a day after a 48-year-old settler was found shot dead on the outskirts of another West Bank settlement, increased pressure on Sharon to take even harsher military action against the Palestinians.
Hours before the two boys were buried, the Yesha Council, an umbrella group that represents 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, issued a statement saying it was "fed up with the condolences from successive Israeli governments." It demanded that action be taken against Arafat and the Palestinian government he heads in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
"As long as the government recognizes the Palestinian Authority under Arafat's command as a political entity and does not define it as a terror organization that must be overthrown, innocent Jews will pay for this with their lives," the council said.
Arafat did not condemn the killings when asked about them. He said Israel has victimized Palestinian children, noting that a 3-month-old girl was seriously injured Wednesday when Israeli troops opened fire on a Gazan refugee camp. Palestinian doctors said Reema Ahmed suffered shrapnel wounds to her head.
Sharon condemned the killings of the two teenagers as a "heinous deed in which children were intentionally attacked," and he blamed the Palestinian Authority for failing to stop assaults on Israeli soldiers and civilians during more than seven months of bloody fighting.
But his words did not mollify the already frightened and angry settlers.
In an ominous political development for the prime minister, hundreds of settlers--who have long regarded Sharon as their champion--demonstrated outside his official residence Tuesday night. They shouted down former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a member of Sharon's Likud Party, when he appealed to them to give the government time to restore calm.
For months, settlers have felt hunted on the roads and besieged in their homes by Palestinian militants who have declared them legitimate targets. Many are disappointed that Sharon, during his two months in office, has been unable to improve the security situation.
"If the government and the army fail to react properly to this crime, I fear that the settlers' short fuse and the rage which has accumulated over the past seven months may flare up in an uncontrolled way," said Shaul Goldstein, chairman of the Gush Etzion council, which represents a block of settlements near Jerusalem.
Killed along with Mandell, whose family emigrated from College Park, Md., in 1996, was Yossi Ishran, 14. The families of both boys had recently moved to Tekoa, about three miles south of Bethlehem.
According to friends, the boys had skipped school Tuesday to explore a nearby ravine. Their parents reportedly thought that the teens had gone from school to the settlers' protest outside Sharon's home and did not report them missing until midnight.
Search parties found their bodies early Wednesday.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the boys had been "tortured and stoned." He vowed that the army will pursue "those who stoned, and those who gave their hand to the murder and those who sent them." Israel Radio reported Wednesday that 18 Palestinians had been detained for questioning.
But Yarden Vatikai, a spokesman for Ben-Eliezer, later said that the defense minister does not believe that settlers are more of a target now than they have been since the latest round of violence began in September.
The army's preliminary investigation of the slayings, Vatikai said, indicated that the attackers were not an organized cell but had simply stumbled on the boys as they hiked.
Meanwhile, at least seven people were wounded in a gunfight today when Israeli troops, armored vehicles and bulldozers entered a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza to demolish buildings, witnesses and security officials told Reuters.
The Palestinian public security chief in Gaza, Maj. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaydeh, said at least three houses and two police posts were destroyed by bulldozers in the Yebna camp near the Egyptian border.
In other incidents Wednesday, Palestinians fired mortars at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, but caused no damage or injuries. Israeli forces razed a Palestinian police station and bulldozed farmland near Gaza City, Palestinians said.