By Rami Amichai
ITAMAR, West Bank (Reuters) - A Jewish couple and three of their children were stabbed to death in a West Bank settlement in what Israeli officials said was an attack by a Palestinian who broke into their home in the early hours of Saturday.
Israeli troops set up roadblocks and were searching the area around the settlement of Itamar, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, for the suspect.
A baby was among the five dead, officials said.
"This is the despicable murder of an entire, innocent family, parents and their young ones while they slept in their house," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
"Israel will not ignore such a contemptible murder and will act aggressively to ensure the security of its civilians and to punish the murderers," he said in a statement. He called on the Palestinian Authority to assist in catching those responsible.
In a strongly worded statement, the office of U.S. President Barack Obama called on President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority to condemn the attack.
"There is no possible justification for the killing of parents and children in their home," the White House said in its statement. "We call on the Palestinian Authority to unequivocally condemn this terrorist attack."
Abbas, who demands the removal of settlements in order to establish a Palestinian state, later put out a statement condemning "all acts of violence against civilians, regardless of who carried them out and their motives."
PEACE TALKS FROZEN
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had said earlier that his West Bank-based government rejects the use of violence.
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.
However, a senior figure in Hamas's exiled leadership in Syria, Izzat al-Rishq, said: "We had nothing to do with it."
Israelis responded with horror to the attack on the Jewish Sabbath, and it may complicate efforts to restart peace talks. These are frozen in arguments over whether Israel should first stop building in settlements on occupied land, which Western governments view as illegal under international law.
Kabha Ma'awiyeh, one of the first paramedics to arrive on scene, said the family members were stabbed in bed and pools of blood had collected on the floor.
Violence in the West Bank has dropped significantly since its peak during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago.
Tensions in the area 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.
Israel has been loosening restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and goods in the occupied territory but maintains a system of roadblocks and checkpoints.
The army has also limited the scope of its raids against suspected militants in Palestinian towns and villages, handing over some responsibility to Palestinian security forces.
Israeli officials have said Netanyahu, who insists on keeping an Israeli military presence along the West Bank's eastern border with Jordan in any peace deal, is weighing fresh steps to move the diplomatic process forward.
Israeli media have reported his moves could include a proposal for a Palestinian state inside temporary borders, an option Palestinian leaders have rejected.
According to the settlers' YESHA council, about 100 families live in Itamar. There was a similar attack on the religious settlement in 2002, when a gunman broke into a house and opened fire, killing four members of one family and a neighbor.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Damascus bureau; Alister Bull in Washington; Writing by Ari Rabinovitch)