Hunt on for killers of Israeli couple

  • 03/10/2015

By Andrea Bernardi and Jonah Mandel

Hundreds of Israeli troops are hunting for suspected Palestinian gunmen after the killing of a settler couple as they drove through the occupied West Bank with their young children.

Eitam and Naama Henkin, both in their 30s, were shot dead in their car on Thursday night (local time) as they travelled between the settlements of Itamar and Elon More, in the north of the Palestinian territory.

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

Israeli security forces were conducting an "intensive search" on the ground combined with intelligence efforts, said army spokesman Arye Shalicar.

The Henkins were residents of the central West Bank settlement of Neria, northwest of Ramallah. The couple were to be buried in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery on Friday.

They "were massacred right in front of their four children", Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner said in a statement.

A paramedic described the scene of the shooting 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.

Thursday's shooting came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the United Nations General Assembly, and a day after that of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who said that Israel's refusal to release prisoners and stop settlement activity was hampering fresh peace talks.

Netanyahu condemned the killings, which he called "the effects of Palestinian incitement", vowing security services would work to "capture the murderers and improve security for all Israeli citizens".

Apprehensive of rising tensions among 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".

An AFP journalist saw Israeli soldiers searching cars along roads around the attack site.

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

Tensions have been running high between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

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 army and security forces had been deployed "to place our hands on the murderers".

In remarks relayed by his office, Yaalon linked recent violence to unrest surrounding Al-Aqsa and also blamed what he termed "incitement" from Palestinian leaders, "especially (Abbas)".

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

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

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