A Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli soldiers outside a West Bank settlement on Thursday, according to the Israeli military, which launched a massive manhunt and locked down the key Palestinian city of Ramallah.
The shooting came after Israeli security forces killed at least four other Palestinians suspected of perpetrating multiple other attacks on Israelis over the last few days, in the bloodiest flare-up of violence to hit the West Bank in months.
In the hunt for Thursday’s shooter, the Israeli army unusually entered central Ramallah, home to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a Palestinian economic and administrative hub. Israel also sent reinforcements to the West Bank city, sealed off all major entry points, and set up checkpoints, sparking clashes with local youth which continued into the evening.
An Israeli army spokesman told The Independent that a Palestinian gunman opened fire on soldiers and civilians at a bus station at the Asaf junction, near the Israeli settlement of Ofra.
Two soldiers were killed, while two others were injured, one severely. The two slain solders, named as Sergeant Yovel Moryosef and Corporal Yosef Cohen, were both promoted.
It came just a day after a similar drive-by shooting that wounded seven Israelis, including a pregnant woman whose baby was delivered prematurely and later died.
In overnight raids in the West Bank Wednesday, Israel said its commandos had killed the Palestinian it said was behind Sunday’s attack, as well as another wanted for a 7 October shooting at a settlement industrial park that killed a man and a woman, both civilians.
Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza, said both men were its members.
Also on Thursday, the Israeli army said it killed a third Palestinian, suspected of being behind an attempted car-ramming incident in al-Bireh, northeast of Ramallah.
An AFP journalist saw Israeli soldiers rushing to the site, with multiple rounds of live ammunition fired at the target.
Palestinians who claimed to know the deceased denied it was a car ramming attempt, saying instead the car had slipped.
Meanwhile, in East Jerusalem, a man stabbed and wounded two Israeli policemen and was shot dead, police said. His identity was not immediately clear.
The events represent the most intense flare-up of violence in the West Bank in months, and follows recent bloodshed along the border between Israel and Gaza. There over 200 Palestinian have been killed by Israeli fire since March, during protests and riots at the fences.
The recent slew of attacks and raids will likely fray already strained relations between Israeli and Palestinian President Abbas's Palestinian Authority.
Abbas's office issued a statement on Thursday denouncing the violence and attacks but also blaming recent events on Israel's "policy of repeated raids into cities and incitement against the President, and the absence of a peace horizon”.
The statement, published by Palestinian Wafa news agency, added: "Our permanent policy is to reject violence, incursions and terror of the settlers, and the need to stop incitement and not to create an atmosphere that contributes to the aggravation of the situation."
Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would be legalising thousands of Israeli settler homes in the West Bank, according to Israeli daily Haaretz, a move which will only enflame tensions.
The Prime Minister's office said it would promote the construction of 82 new housing units in the settlement of Ofra, where the shootings occurred, as well as two new industrial zones near the settlements of Avnei Hefetz and Beitar Illit. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are deemed illegal under international law.
Mr Netanyahu said: "We will settle accounts with whoever did this. Our guiding principle is that whoever attacks us and whoever tries to attack us – will pay with his life. Our enemies know this and we will find them."
The armed wing of Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel in Gaza since 2008, claimed the two Palestinians killed in the last 24 hours as its "fighters".
One of them was Salah Barghouti, a 29-year-old accused of Sunday’s shooting of seven Israelis.
Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service said that other members of Barghouti's group, all of them affiliated with Hamas, had been arrested overnight.
In that attack a woman who was seven months pregnant was among those wounded.
Our guiding principle is that whoever attacks us and whoever tries to attack us – will pay with his life. Our enemies know this and we will find them
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister
Doctors tried to save her baby boy with an emergency caesarean but he died on Wednesday. The mother remains in hospital in a serious condition.
Hamas has only grass root support in the West Bank and is prevented from properly operating because of both Abbas’s forces and the Israelis.
Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col Jonathan Conricus said he was not aware if the slew of attacks were coordinated by a central organisation but said they had been "glorified" on Palestinian social and regular media outlets.
"We are definitely aware of the phenomenon of copycats and our forces are deployed accordingly." He added: "This could definitely fall into that pattern."
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East war and still occupies both. The Palestinians claim the territories for their hoped-for state, with parts of Jerusalem as their capital. Israeli settlements within the Palestinian Territories are deemed illegal under international law.