Agony and tears as thousands turn out to say farewell to Israel's murdered teens

MODIIN, Israel (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Israelis turned out to pay an emotional farewell on Tuesday to three teenagers whose abduction and murder by Palestinian militants has traumatised the nation.

On a hot and windy afternoon, a sea of mourners from across the country packed into the cemetery in Modiin in central Israel to pay their last respects at a ceremony attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and 19-year-old Eyal Ifrach, disappeared on June 12 while hitchhiking in the southern West Bank, prompting a vast manhunt by thousands of Israeli police and soldiers.

Their bodies were found on Monday, 17 days after they were snatched. They had been shot dead, with Israel accusing the Islamist Hamas movement of their murder.

The disappearance of the teens and the hunt for their kidnappers has gripped the Israeli public, triggering an outpouring of public grief and anger.

Despite that, there were no calls for vengeance.

"The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord," intoned a cantor at the start of the funeral service, the words taken from the biblical book of Job, a figure known for his great suffering.

Addressing the mourners, many of whom wiped away tears, their faces screwed up in pain, Mr Netanyahu described it as a "spontaneous day of national mourning".

"I know the pain of mourning. There is nothing worse than that," he said standing by the three coffins, each draped with the blue-and-white Israeli flag.

"But I also know that life has its own power, like a river which sweeps us forward and gives us the strength for renewal and hope," he said to a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see.

After the speeches, the three youngsters were to be laid to rest side by side in three plots far from the public view in a private goodbye attended by the family and close friends.

Earlier in the afternoon, the families paid their last respects in a series of emotional eulogies in each youngster's home town.

"Rest in peace, my son," said Naftali's mother Rachel Frankel, her voice cracking with emotion in a departure from the image of strength she had consistently projected in multiple public appearances since June 12.

"We will learn to sing without you, but your voice will always, always, always be heard inside," she said at a ceremony in Nof Ayalon in central Israel.

As the burials were taking place, news channels broadcast for the first time a recording of the voice of one of the youths who managed to phone the emergency services at 10.20pm, shortly after they were snatched.

"They kidnapped me," whispers a voice, identified as that of Gilad Shaer.

"Get your head down, head down," urges a voice in heavily accented Hebrew, said to be that of one of the kidnappers.

The police were unable to trace the call and, dismissing it as a hoax, did not pass on the information to the army until hours after the teens were reported missing.

"I managed to speak to you just before you set off home. I heard your peaceful and loving voice... and now you've come home to us," said Mr Ofir Shaer, addressing his son Gilad, his voice hoarse with emotion.

"Now Mum and I are facing the biggest challenge of our lives," he said.

"How is it possible to sum up your life in just a few words? How can I distill everything you did in your life into a few short sentences?"

His eldest, Shirel, 18, described her younger brother as a hero.

"You join a long and sad list of Israeli heros, but not by choice," she said as the family gathered to pay their last respects in Talmon settlement near Ramallah.

"I hope you are the last ones to join that list."

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