Israelis mourn next to the newly dug graves of Eitam and Naama Henkin, who were killed by suspected Palestinian gunmen the previous night as they were driving through the occupied West Bank, following their funeral in Jerusalem's cemetery on October 2, 2015. Israel deployed hundreds of troops in a hunt for suspected Palestinian gunmen after the couple were killed in front of their children in the West Bank. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN

BEIT FURIK: Hundreds of Israeli troops were hunting yesterday 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 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 vehicle. 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. They "were massacred right in front of their four children," said Peter Lerner, another spokesman for the Israeli military. 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 Mahmud Abbas, who said that Israel's refusal to release prisoners and stop settlement activity was hampering fresh peace talks.

'Palestinian incitement'

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". The European Union called for justice as well as 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 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, noting that nobody was hurt.

The Henkins were buried Friday in Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetary at a ceremony attended by thousands of mourners, including their oldest child Matan, and Israeli President Reuben Rivlin. "We will fight terror without fear, mercy or cowardice," Rivlin told the crowd. Tensions have been running high between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

'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 yesterday, said the 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. Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War in a move never recognised by the international community. Hardline Jewish nationalists see the entire West Bank as part of Israel, which refers to the territory as Judea and Samaria, the names for the ancient biblical kingdoms located there.

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 his parents. - AFP