Israel searches for family's killers

Israeli soldiers hunt for the killers of five family members who were stabbed to death as they slept in their West Bank home.

Family knifed to death as they slept

An Israeli border police officer patrols the West Bank village of Awarta on Saturday after three children and their parents were killed in the nearby settlement of Itamar. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Associated Press)

Israeli soldiers hunted Saturday for the killers of five family members who were stabbed to death as they slept in their West Bank home.

Palestinian militants were suspected of killing a husband and wife and three of their children —  aged 11, three and four months — on Friday night near the Itamar settlement.

Another family member, a 12-year-old returning from a youth group, found the bodies.

Israeli forces set up checkpoints in the area around the Itamar settlement in the northern West Bank and were still sweeping the region late into Saturday.

Military officials said they had made some arrests but provided no details.

Palestinians join search

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special security meeting to decide on further action, saying he was "deeply shocked" by the attack.

"Israel will not stand by idly after such a despicable murder and will act vigorously to safeguard the lives of the citizens of Israel and punish the murderers."

Palestinian security forces were also searching for suspects.

"Violence does not justify violence," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told The Associated Press. "We condemn it completely, whoever does it and whoever the victims are."

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a mostly defunct Palestinian militant group, took responsibility for the attack, but this group has falsely claimed responsibility for attacks in the past.

In Gaza, residents and Hamas officials applauded the killing of the settlers.

Israeli officials said at least one Palestinian militant infiltrated the Itamar settlement, entered the family home and stabbed the five family members. Two young children asleep in another part of the house survived.

TV Footage from the scene showed children's toys covered in blood and furniture tipped over.

Area had been calm

The overnight attack, described as the deadliest in years, marked a rare outburst during a relatively calm period.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last year because of disputes over Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A 10-month Israeli freeze of new settlement construction expired last September, although a slowdown has continued, angering settlers.

Ron Nahman, mayor of the Ariel settlement, called on the government to respond to the "massacre" by resuming construction in earnest. He said anything else would send a message to Arabs that "you can do anything against the settlers."

The attack was reminiscent of a similar one in Itamar in June 2002, at the height of a Palestinian uprising, when a gunmen burst into the home of a family and shot and killed a mother and three of her children. Another two children were seriously injured and a local security official was shot to death as he tried to help.

On Saturday, Israel's new military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, visited the family's home in Itamar and vowed that Israel "will not rest until we capture the murderers."

The attack occurred on the Jewish Sabbath when the observant are prohibited from working and most physical activity, instead spending the day in prayer or rest. Itamar is an observant community and there was no official comment from residents there.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would file a complaint with the United Nations over the attack and expects "worldwide condemnation of the satanic murder of an entire family."

Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, issued a statement condemning the "shocking murder of an Israeli family of five" and called for those responsible to be brought to justice.