HEBRON, Palestinian Territories — The Islamist Hamas movement claimed responsibility and rejoiced for the killing of four Israelis on Tuesday, as Israeli Prime Minister flew to Washington for renewed peace talks with the Palestinians.
A United Nations envoy condemned the bloodshed and Israel's Defence Minister pledged every effort would be made to catch the perpetrators. Hamas praised the attack on victims that reportedly included a pregnant woman, and hundreds of its supporters took to the streets of the Gaza Strip to celebrate.
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad also condemned the incident, which he said came as the Palestinian leadership was seeking to enlist international support for its arguments at the Washington talks.
The attack, he said in a statement, "is contrary to the Palestinian national interest."
The four Israelis were shot dead near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba after nightfall in a clear and bloody message from Hamas, which is vehemently opposed to the talks which Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas are to relaunch in Washington on Wednesday.
"The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigade claims full responsibility," Hamas' military wing said in a terse statement.
"Hamas blesses the Hebron operation and considers it as a normal reaction to the occupation crime," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a separate statement.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately informed Netanyahu, who was still in the air at the time.
"The army and the security forces will do everything they can to lay their hands on the murderers," Barak said in a statement.
Arriving in Washington, Netanyahu aides said he intended to tell his US hosts that the incident would not soften his negotiating position.
They said that Netanyahu had ordered his security forces to hunt for the killers of the victims, who died near a West Bank Jewish settlement, "without diplomatic restraint."
In Jerusalem, United Nations peace envoy Robert Serry said he was shocked at the incident but said it should not be allowed to divert the Israeli and Palestinian leaders from seeking an end to the conflict.
"We condemn this murderous act and call for those responsible to be brought to justice," he said in a statement, adding that Netanyahu and Abbas should not "allow the enemies of peace to affect the negotiations about to be launched."
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said a car in which the victims were travelling came under fire on a road between the settlement and the Palestinian village of Bani Naim, near the city of Hebron.
"Obviously, it was a terrorist attack," he said.
Israeli army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz said she believed the dead were settlers from the area, adding that the road on which they were attacked was used by both Palestinians and Israelis.
The bloodstained vehicle at the side of the road was riddled with what looked like dozens of bullet holes.
Rescue services said the victims were a man and woman around 40 years old and another man and woman in their twenties. The military said one of the women was pregnant.
Leibovitz said troops were combing the area in a hunt for clues and suspects
It was the first fatal attack on Israelis in the West Bank since June 14, when a policeman was killed and two others wounded, also in the Hebron area.
Briefing journalists shortly after the attack Leibovitz said she hoped the latest shooting was an isolated event and did not did not herald a new escalation of violence.
"I hope its a pinpoint operation and will not cause any deterioration in the security situation in the area, which was very stable in the past two years or so," she said.
Netanyahu says the latest attempt to reach a binding peace treaty with the Palestinians must be based on "firm security arrangements" to ensure that future Palestinian rule in the West Bank does not lead to the territory becoming a staging point for attacks on Israelis.
Abbas says that talks will implode unless there is a complete halt to Israeli settlement building.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »