A top Hamas sheikh has appeared in a video recording in which he attributes the June kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers to Hamas’ armed wing.

Saleh al-Arouri, a senior religious figure in Hamas, praises the action in what was being described as the strongest evidence yet of a Hamas link to the crime widely regarded as having triggered the latest Gaza war.

In the video, aired by Israel’s Channel 2, Sheikh Arouri is heard speaking at a conference in Turkey, saying that the “blessed the heroic action” was “carried out by the al-Qassam Brigades” – the armed wing of Hamas.

The mothers of the three murdered Israeli teenagers.

The mothers of the three murdered Israeli teenagers.

The claim relates to the abduction and killing of Jewish settlers Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach in June as they hitchhiked outside the settlement of Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem.

The boys’ disappearance galvanised Israeli public opinion and led to an enormous search and rescue mission in the West Bank, during which hundreds of Hamas members were detained, many without charge. After several weeks the boys’ bodies were found, leading to an outpouring of grief.

Hamas maintained that it was not involved but was always suspected of being behind the plot, given its long history of calling for the kidnapping of Israelis, in order to exchange them for members held in Israeli jails.

The sheikh’s comments come as Israeli troops demolished the West Bank homes of two men suspected of being behind the boys’ abduction and killing. Soldiers also sealed up the home of a third.

The suspected mastermind, Hussam Kawasma, has been in Israeli custody since July. Two other suspects, identified by Israel as Marwan Kawasma and Amer Abu Aysha, remain at large.