By Stephen Farrell
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – A Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis at a bus station in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, Israel’s military said, after Israeli forces killed two Hamas fugitives who carried out earlier attacks.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the gunman had climbed from a car at a junction near Ofra settlement and opened fire at Israeli troops and civilians standing nearby, killing two and wounding two others.
The vehicle fled toward Ramallah, he said, prompting Israeli troops to shut down entrances to the West Bank city and to begin searches and roadblocks.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place near the site of a drive-by shooting on Sunday that wounded seven Israelis, including a pregnant woman. The baby was delivered prematurely but died four days later.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Gaza-based spokesman for the armed Islamist group Hamas, hailed that attack as a “heroic and brave operation”.
In separate overnight swoops in the West Bank, Israel said on Thursday its commandos had killed the Palestinian behind Sunday’s attack as well as another wanted for an Oct 7 shooting at a settlement industrial park that killed a man and a woman, both civilians.
Also on Thursday, a man stabbed and wounded two Israeli police troopers in East Jerusalem, another area where Palestinians seek statehood, and was shot dead, police said. His identity was not immediately clear.
The increase in violence in the West Bank looks likely to fray Israel’s already strained ties with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.
Abbas’s Western-backed authority has continued to coordinate with Israel on security in the West Bank, despite deepening rancor between Israelis and Palestinians at a political level since negotiations broke down in 2014.
Although Hamas’s power base is in Gaza it also poses a grassroots challenge to Abbas in the West Bank, although its ability to operate there is hampered by the presence of Abbas’s forces, and of Israeli troops.
Conricus would not confirm whether Israel thought Thursday’s attack was carried out by an organization, or by someone acting independently.
But he said that recent attacks 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.”
He also pointed to the forthcoming 31st anniversary of the founding of Hamas, on Dec. 14, as a possible factor.
“This culture of murder is fed by constant incitement to hatred and by the financial support of terrorists and their families by the PA (Palestinian Authority),” Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said after Thursday’s drive-by shooting. “This must stop.”
Abbas’s office issued a statement on Thursday denouncing violence. Published by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, it blamed the recent events on Israel’s “policy of repeated raids into cities and incitement against the President, and the absence of a peace horizon”.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Gareth Jones)