By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Sunday it would build several hundred homes for settlers in the occupied West Bank, a day after a Palestinian attack killed an Israeli couple and three of their children in a settlement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special session of a ministerial committee on settlement to approve the step after pledging publicly the stabbings on Saturday would not deter Israel from building more homes for Jews in the West Bank.
Troops searched outside the settlement of Itamar, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, for the attacker or attackers who snuck into the home of Ehud and Ruti Fogel at night and knifed them and three of their children, aged 11, 4 and 3 months, as the family slept.
A 12-year-old daughter found their bodies after returning home from an evening youth group meeting.
With anger high in Israel and among settlers, Netanyahu's office said in a statement that "ministers decided to authorize construction" of several hundred housing units in the Etzion bloc of settlements and in Maale Adumim, Ariel and Kiryat Sefer.
The move was likely to draw international dismay and harden Palestinian resolve not to return to peace talks frozen over Netanyahu's refusal to extend a 10-month moratorium that expired in November on housing starts in West Bank settlements.
"This decision is wrong and unacceptable and will only create problems," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Expanded construction in West Bank settlements could bolster Netanyahu within his governing coalition, which is dominated by pro-settler parties, including his own right-wing Likud.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack but the Hamas Islamists who rule the Gaza Strip said they offered their "full support" to any actions taken against settlers.
A senior figure in Hamas's exiled leadership, Izzat al-Rishq, said on Saturday: "We had nothing to do with it."
A funeral for the family was to be held later on Sunday.
Several hours after the attack, Abbas put out a statement condemning "all acts of violence against civilians, regardless of who carried them out and their motives."
Netanyahu, who spoke with Abbas by phone, said the statements by the Palestinian leadership were not strong enough and it must move to end what he termed incitement against Israelis in Palestinian schools, mosques and media.
No starting date was given for the new housing projects, in settlements Israel has said it intends to keep in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel's left-leaning Haaretz newspaper put the number of planned homes at 500.
The World Court has deemed illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, territory captured along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.
Some 500,000 settlers live among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians fear the enclaves will deny them a viable state.
Violence in the West Bank has dropped significantly since its peak during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago, although tensions had risen earlier in the week when Israeli troops fired live rounds at Palestinians after they clashed with settlers.
Ten Palestinians and one Israeli were wounded in the confrontation.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah)