Israeli troops hunt killers of Jewish settler couple

Andrea Bernardi with Jonah Mandel in Jerusalem
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Israeli soldiers inspect a Palestinian car at a checkpoint close to the West Bank village of Beit Furik, east of Nablus, on October 2, 2015

Israeli soldiers inspect a Palestinian car at a checkpoint close to the West Bank village of Beit Furik, east of Nablus, on October 2, 2015 (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Beit Furik (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Hundreds of Israeli troops searched the West Bank on Friday for the suspected Palestinian killers of a Jewish settler couple shot in front of their young children, the army said.

As the manhunt was under way, numerous attacks on Palestinians were reported in the occupied West Bank, as tensions remained high between them and Israelis.

Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife Naama, both in their 30s, were shot as they were driving on Thursday night between the settlements of Itamar and Elon Moreh in the north of the territory.

Their four children, aged between four months and nine years, were found unharmed in the back of the car.

Army spokesman Colonel Peter Lerner said the Henkins were "massacred right in front of" their children.

A paramedic described the shooting scene as "difficult".

"We saw a car in the middle of the road, and next to it, a man in his 30s lay on the ground with upper body gunshot wounds," Boaz Malka was quoted as saying by Israeli media.

Israel's foreign ministry said "at least two" gunmen targeted the vehicle in a "drive-by" attack, but the exact circumstances were unclear.

- 'Intensive search' -

Israeli forces were conducting an "intensive search" on the ground, army spokesman Arye Shalicar said.

The Henkins were residents of the Neria settlement, northwest of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority.

The foreign ministry said they were returning from a graduation ceremony at a Jewish school when the shooting occurred at around 9 pm.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin condemned the killings, which he called "the effects of Palestinian incitement", and vowed that security services would work to "capture the murderers and improve security for all Israeli citizens".

He also remarked that he had not yet heard any condemnation from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, while accusing unnamed senior officials of Abbas's Fatah movement of "praising the action".

The European Union called for both justice and restraint.

"Even in the face of such a crime, restraint and calm are needed on all sides to ensure that the violence witnessed yesterday and in recent months does not aggravate the situation further," it said.

Apprehensive of rising tensions between settlers and Palestinians, the army said it would be deploying "four battalions in order to prevent an escalation of violence in the area adjacent to the location of the attack".

Palestinian news agency Wafa said a 35-year-old man was shot in the leg by settlers near Bethlehem, and police said settlers had stoned a number of cars and set fire to olive trees.

And in the Palestinian village of Beitillu, a short distance from Neria, assailants torched a car and spray-painted "Revenge Henkin" in Hebrew on a wall, the army said, adding that nobody was hurt.

The Henkins were buried on Friday in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery at a ceremony attended by thousands of mourners, including their nine-year-old son Matan, his grandmothers and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

"We will fight terror without fear, mercy or cowardice," Rivlin told the crowd.

Grandmothers Hanna and Hila promised their dead children they would raise their grandchildren "as you would have done".

- 'Crimes of the Zionists' -

The site of Thursday's shooting was near the Palestinian village of Beit Furik, where a Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces during clashes last month.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who visited the attack site on Friday, said the security forces had been deployed "to place our hands on the murderers".

The circumstances surrounding the killing remain unclear. A group purportedly linked to the Palestinian Fatah movement claimed responsibility, but this could not be immediately verified.

The militant Hamas group hailed those behind the shooting, while not taking responsibility for it.

"This operation was in response to the crimes of the Zionists," it said.

Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War in a move never recognised by the international community.

The last killing of an Israeli in the West Bank happened on June 29, when a settler died and three others in a car with him were wounded.

On July 31, suspected Jewish extremists firebombed a Palestinian home in the village of Duma that killed toddler Ali Saad Dawabsha and fatally injured his parents.