JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian shot and killed two Israeli parents driving with their four children along a West Bank road on Thursday, the Israeli military said, amid mounting unrest surrounding a Jerusalem site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Israel's military, which called the violence a "ruthless, heinous, barbaric attack," said forces were scouring the area, near the Palestinian village of Beit Furik. The military said the four children in the car were lightly wounded.
"There was very, very massive fire," Eli Bin, director of Israel's rescue service MDA, told Israeli Channel 2 TV news. "We didn't have much choice but to pronounce them dead on the spot." He later told Israel Radio that the intensity of the violence and amount of gunfire was "something we haven't seen here for a long time."
It was not immediately clear if the attacker was acting alone or with others. Israeli media reported there was more than one assailant and that they opened fire from a passing car. The Israeli military said it could not confirm the reports.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the attack on "Palestinian incitement." ''Again it's been proven that unruly Palestinian incitement leads to acts of terror and acts of murder as we saw this evening," Netanyahu said in a statement from New York, where he spoke earlier at the United Nations General Assembly.
Israeli media identified the victims as Eitam and Naama Henkin, residents of a Jewish West Bank settlement.
The attack comes as tensions continue to flare between Israelis and Palestinians over the Jerusalem site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Temples, and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, site of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the spot from where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
Over the past two weeks, Palestinian protesters have clashed with Israeli police at the hilltop compound and unrest has spilled over to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and the West Bank. In one incident in Jerusalem last month, an Israeli motorist was killed over the Jewish New Year holiday after his car was pelted with stones.
It was not immediately clear if a militant group was behind Thursday's shooting, or if it was a so-called lone wolf attack with no militant support. The armed wing of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, stopped short of claiming responsibility but welcomed the attack.
"We praise the heroic operation that fighters in the West Bank carried out and we consider it a true response to the occupier's crime," the movement's armed wing said on its Twitter page. It called for more attacks.
The holy site in Jerusalem's Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as their future capital. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but not pray there.
Thursday's shooting took place during Sukkot, a weeklong festival that celebrates the autumn harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following their exodus from Egypt.
In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on Sukkot, and many Jews have been visiting the city throughout the holiday period, raising the risk of further unrest.
Calls by a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year last month sparked rumors among Palestinians that Israel was planning to disrupt the delicate status quo governing the site and take it over.
These rumors, coupled with some Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the mosque, fueled the outbreak of violence two weeks ago. Israel denies having any plans to change the status quo.
Thursday's violence also threatens to deepen a divide between Israelis and Palestinians over stalled peace negotiations, which collapsed last year.
In a reflection of the rift, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday that he is no longer bound to agreements that have defined relations with Israel for the past two decades. While the declaration was blunted by the lack of any detail on how he plans to move forward, Israel said Abbas had delivered a "speech of lies that encourages incitement and unrest in the Middle East."
The U.N.'s Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, condemned the violence and called for calm.
"In order to avoid escalation all must refrain from inflammatory statements and retaliatory action that can only further exacerbate an already tense environment," he said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed reporting.