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Israel hunts for killers of West Bank family

Palestinian forces join in the search

By Aron Heller
Associated Press / March 13, 2011

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JERUSALEM — Israel hunted for the perpetrators of a grisly murder of five family members in a remote West Bank settlement yesterday, appealing for help from the Palestinian Authority, which sent security forces to join the manhunt.

The knife attack, which killed two young children, a baby, and their parents as they slept, was the deadliest in years. It comes at a delicate moment, with pressure building on Israel to launch a new peace initiative and the Palestinians pushing for world recognition of an independent state — with or without a peace deal.

Israeli forces set up checkpoints throughout the area surrounding the Itamar settlement in the northern West Bank and were still sweeping the region late yesterday. Military officials said they had made some arrests, but wouldn’t provide details.

The governor of the nearby Palestinian city of Nablus, Jibril Bakri, said that Palestinian security forces were also searching for suspects. It was a rare instance of the two sides both searching for militant suspects, though Israeli forces and those of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank do cooperate on security issues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special security meeting to decide upon further action, saying he was “deeply shocked’’ by the attack.

“We all know, as those who want to strike at us will know, that the future of the settlements will not be decided upon by terror,’’ he said in a statement. “Israel will not stand by idly after such a despicable murder and will act vigorously to safeguard the lives of the citizens of Israel and punish the murderers.’’

The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a mostly defunct Palestinian militant group, took responsibility for the attack. However, they frequently claim to be behind attacks they didn’t do in hopes of raising their profile.

“Violence does not justify violence, we condemn it completely, whoever does it and whoever the victims are,’’ Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said. But in Gaza, Hamas officials applauded the attack and residents celebrated the killing of the settlers.

Israeli officials said at least one Palestinian militant infiltrated the settlement, entered the family home and stabbed the parents and three of their children, ages 11, 3, and 4 months, as they slept.

Two young children asleep in another part of the house survived. Another family member, a 12-year-old girl, was away at a youth group function when the attack occurred. She arrived home to discover the carnage and alerted authorities.

Itamar is a small settlement that has rocky relations with the nearby Palestinian towns and villages.

The overnight attack was the first against settlers in months and the deadliest in years, marking a rare outburst of violence during a relatively calm period. It comes as Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are at a standstill and could complicate efforts to restart them.

Peace talks between the two sides collapsed last year over disputes over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, territory Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

A 10-month Israeli freeze of new settlement construction expired last September, but a de facto slowdown has since continued on the ground, angering settlers.

Ron Nahman, mayor of the Ariel settlement, called on the government to respond to the “massacre’’ by resuming construction in earnest. He said anything else would send a message to Arabs that “you can do anything against the settlers.’’

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