Four Israeli civilians in a car were shot dead in the West Bank on Tuesday on the eve of a U.S. sponsored Middle East peace summit in Washington, an Israel Army spokeswoman said.
“This was a terrorist attack and the army is treating it as a grave incident,” Lt-Colonel Avital Leibovitch told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Two men and two women, one pregnant, were killed in the drive-by shooting on a busy highway in the occupied Palestinian territory used by Palestinians and Israeli settlers, she said.
The United States and its allies in the search for a Middle East peace treaty have urged all parties to refrain from any action that could disrupt the resumption of direct negotiations after a hiatus of 20 months. But Israelis and Palestinians alike have predicted that opponents of a peace deal would try to derail the talks through violence.
“Security was stable for the past few years and we hope this will not cause any deterioration,” Leibovitch said. An Israeli minister also said he hoped the attack would not derail the talks.
Israeli forces in the West Bank were treating it as a grave incident and were searching for the perpetrators, Leibovitch said. She could not say how many shots were fired at the vehicle.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said: “We can confirm there are four dead at the scene.” The attack occurred after dark near the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, where Israeli settlers live in a tiny enclave amid Palestinian residents, under the protection of Israeli army troops.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
But the Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip praised the killings. Hamas rejects the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and opposes the direct peace talks due to resume formally on Sept 2.
“Hamas praises the attack and regards it as a natural response to the crimes of the occupation,” said Sami Abu-Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
He said the attack was proof “of a failure of security coordination” between Israel and the Palestinians — a reference to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority whose U.S.-trained forces have been credited with suppressing armed militants in their territory.
Israel army spokeswoman Leibovitch said that “this praise speaks for itself”.
“If you praise the killing of innocent civilians this is not a peacekeeping operation,” she said.
Police spokesman Rosenfeld said the incident occurred near the Kiryat Arba settlement. Israel’s Channel Two television said the Israelis had been shot from a passing vehicle.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas, are due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama for dinner at the White House on Wednesday, and open formal talks on Sept. 2 — their first direct negotiations since talks broke off in late 2008. But the Palestinians are split, Hamas condemning the talks as a sell-out.
“The Hebron attack is a natural response to the crimes of the occupiers and evidence of the presence of resistance despite the war of liquidation,” said Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing.
Speeches from loudspeakers at a mosque in the northern Gaza Strip celebrated news of the attack.
Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar, a close ally of Netanyahu who is already in Washington, said it was a shocking incident but should not halt diplomacy.
“It is very regrettable, how not for the first time, against the background of diplomatic talks aming to advance peace, the nearly automatic response of Palestinians was a terrorist attack on civilians,” Saar said.
Saar, interviewed by Israel’s Channel 10 television, said he thought “no prize should go to the murderers by not holding diplomatic talks”.
Leibovitch said she understood Netanyahu had been informed of the shooting. Reuters
Photo: Israeli ZAKA rescue service members (L) and police are seen near the vehicle which was carrying four Israelis killed in a shooting attack near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron August 31, 2010.