As Israel continued its manhunt Friday for the gunmen who killed two soldiers in the central West Bank, security forces readied for possible further violence as the Palestinian terror group Hamas called for a “day of rage” to mark the anniversary of its founding.
On Thursday, a Palestinian opened fire at a bus stop outside the Givat Assaf settlement outpost in the West Bank and killed Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef, 20, and Cpl. Yosef Cohen, 19, while another soldier and civilian were wounded.
Troops searched for the terrorists overnight in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the Israel Defense Forces said.
Soldiers arrested 40 Palestinians throughout the West Bank suspected of involvement in terror and rioting, 37 of whom the IDF said were known Hamas operatives.
“The IDF will continue to act to thwart terrorism and maintain security in the area,” the army said in a statement.
A senior Israel Defense Forces commander indicated the same Hamas terror cell was responsible for Thursday’s attack in addition to a shooting that wounded seven Israelis outside the Ofra settlement on Sunday night that led to the death of a baby boy who was delivered prematurely after his mother was critically hurt in the attack.
IDF Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan vowed the military would hunt down the terrorists, some of whom remain on the run.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that an IDF soldier’s rifle was snatched by the Palestinian gunmen during Thursday’s shooting attack.
Following the latest attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who also serves as defense minister — beefed up troop levels across the West Bank, ordered detentions of Hamas activists and called for demolishing the homes of attackers within 48 hours.
Netanyahu has said he would “settle accounts” with the attackers, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held Israel responsible for what he said was a violent environment.
Netanyahu also said he would legalize thousands of existing West Bank settlement homes whose status was in question, and ordered his attorney general to make arrangements for construction of 82 news homes in Ofra, the scene of one of this week’s attacks.
“Our guiding principle is that whoever attacks us and whoever tries to attack us will pay with his life,” Netanyahu said at a military ceremony.
In the wake of Thursday’s shooting, Israel set up checkpoints on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, searching cars and checking the IDs of drivers entering the Palestinians’ typically quiet center of government and commerce. Some Israeli-controlled roads were completely blocked to Palestinian traffic.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the measures were aimed at preventing “copycat” attacks. “We know that when there is one attack there may be others,” he said.
Inside Ramallah, streets were empty and shops were shuttered as the Palestinians called a general strike to protest Israel’s actions, including the killing of two wanted terrorists.
Abbas condemned the violence, criticizing both the terrorist attacks and the Israeli response, accusing Israel of creating a climate conducive to violence and alleging it was inciting against him.
“This atmosphere created by the frequent Israeli raids of the cities, and the incitement against the president and the absence of the peace hopes, led to this series of violence that both peoples are paying the price for,” he said in a statement.
Late Wednesday, Israel killed Salih Barghouti, one of the suspects in Sunday’s Ofra shooting.
Then overnight its forces killed Ashraf Na’alowa, wanted for killing two Israelis in a terror attack at the Barkan Industrial Zone in October.
Both men were said to have been armed.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, meanwhile, Israeli police killed a Palestinian assailant who stabbed two officers.
Late Thursday, the army said it shot and killed a Palestinian motorist in what it called an attempted car-ramming attack. Palestinians challenged the account, saying the motorist was a wealthy 60-year-old factory owner who had no incentive to carry out such an attack and had apparently panicked when he saw the soldiers.
Israeli officials accuse Hamas of being behind the recent shootings. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said that Barghouti and Naalweh both were members, but stopped short of claiming responsibility for their attacks.
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.
The latest attacks also come amid the backdrop of months-long clashes along the Gaza border, which Israel has accused Hamas of using to carry out attacks on troops and attempt to breach the security fence. Hamas, an Islamist terror group, seeks to destroy Israel.