A senior Israel Defense Forces commander on Thursday indicated that the same Hamas terror cell carried out two drive-by shooting attacks in the West Bank this week, in which two IDF soldiers were killed, a baby lost his life, and nine other Israelis were injured.
It appeared to be the first official confirmation that the two terror attacks, which occurred along the same highway and days apart, were directly linked.
IDF Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan vowed that the IDF would hunt down the terrorists, some of whom remain on the run.
“In the past few days a Hamas terror group cell managed to harm us and exact from us a heavy price,” Padan said. “We will pursue them and settle the score with this cell.”
On Thursday afternoon, a Palestinian terrorist opened fire at the bus stop near the Givat Assaf outpost, killing two soldiers, critically injuring a third, and seriously wounding a civilian woman, before fleeing the scene. The IDF later identified the slain soldiers as Staff Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef, 20, and Sgt. Yosef Cohen, 19.
The Kan public broadcaster reported on Thursday night that an IDF soldier’s rifle was snatched by the Palestinian gunmen during the shooting attack.
The shooting attack took place on Route 60, some two kilometers (1.25 miles) from Ofra, where on Sunday a number of terrorists driving in a white car opened fire at a group of people standing at the settlement’s bus stop, hitting seven of them, including a heavily pregnant woman who was seriously injured and whose baby — delivered in emergency surgery — later died as a result of the attack.
“There will no hiding place for the attackers in all of Judea and Samaria,” Padan said, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “The IDF will continue to hunt them. Following the attack we are increasing forces, protecting the roads and settlements, and expanding the efforts to thwart terror.”
Late Wednesday night, Israeli security forces conducted a series of raids in the Ramallah area to find the terrorists responsible for Sunday’s shooting. At least four suspects were arrested and one, Salih Omar Barghouti, 29, was shot dead after troops said he tried to attack them while attempting to escape in the village of Kobar, outside Ramallah. Hamas later claimed Barghouti as a member.
But the military on Thursday afternoon acknowledged that it may not yet have arrested all of the suspects in the drive-by shooting attack outside the Ofra settlement.
“We’re still in the midst of a manhunt,” a senior officer in the IDF Central Command said on Thursday morning, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to the attacks, ordered a series of security measures, including escalating administrative detention of Hamas members in the West Bank, a measure that enables holding them under arrest for extended periods without trial.
“The prime minister sent a sharp message to Hamas: We will operate against you if you carry out [acts of] terrorism from Judea and Samaria,” a senior official said, using the biblical name for the West Bank. “There will not be a situation in which there is a ceasefire in Gaza and the use of fire in Judea and Samaria.”
The IDF also bolstered its troops in the West Bank on Thursday in the wake of the attacks and amid the ongoing manhunt.
The army refused to specify the number of additional battalions it was deploying in the West Bank. An IDF spokesperson said the reinforcements would assist in the search for the shooter and any accomplices, as well as provide additional protection to settlements and the area’s roadways.
The past week has seen a significant escalation in the level of violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Before dawn on Thursday morning, a Palestinian man stabbed two border guards in the Old City of Jerusalem, lightly injuring them, before he was shot dead by the officers.
Hours after the Givat Assaf shooting attack, the army said a Palestinian man attempted to ram his car into a group of soldiers who were taking part in the effort to find the gunman outside the town of el-Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah. The troops opened fire, killing the man, later identified by Palestinian officials as Hamdan al-Arda. One soldier was lightly injured. The Palestinian man’s family denied the army’s claims, saying it was not an attack, but rather a traffic accident. Arda, a 56-year-old aluminum factory owner, was hard of hearing, his relatives told the Haaretz daily.
Separately, Israeli troops located a terrorist who killed two Israelis in October at the Barkan industrial zone after a two-month manhunt. The suspect was killed in a shootout with troops overnight Wednesday-Thursday.
There has been an increase in the number of attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in recent weeks, after months of relative calm in the area, raising concerns of a potential renewed outbreak of regular, serious violence in the region.
The military blamed the increase in attacks both on terror groups’ ongoing efforts, the “copycat” phenomenon and a number of significant dates coming up this week, notably the anniversary of Hamas’s founding.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.