Nablus (Palestinian Territories): An attack blamed on Palestinians killed five members of an Israeli family in their beds in their West Bank settlement, sparking a huge manhunt by the Israeli army Saturday.
Media reports said a baby girl of three months, two children aged three and 11, and their parents were all stabbed to death.
Army radio said two children aged four and two had been spared and a third, a girl of 10, had discovered the massacre when she arrived home and alerted neighbours.
The radio said the killer or killers had managed to get past an electric fence surrounding the settlement.
One paramedic told news website Ynet one of the children still had a pulse when they arrived, but that they had been unable to resuscitate him.
"It`s a very serious attack; a whole family has been massacred by terrorists," regional military commander General Avi Mizrahi said on army radio.
"We are hunting those responsible and we think we will lay hands on them very quickly and they will pay for it."
The newly appointed military commander, General Beny Gantz, went to the scene to direct the manhunt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the authorities would do everything possible to protect Israelis and demanded that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas punish those responsible for the murders.
"Israel will act vigorously to defend the Israeli population and to punish the murderers," said a statement from his office.
"The prime minister demands that the Palestinian Authority and its head (Abbas) find and punish the authors of this attack."
Palestinian security sources told AFP soldiers in jeeps had deployed in the sector, sending ambulances to the scene, and that an army helicopter was flying overhead.
Troops entered the Palestinian village of Awarta, near Itamar, searching house-by-house and questioning "many residents."
There was no immediate claim for the attack, but the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Brigades, the armed wing of the hardline Islamic Jihad movement, excused it.
"This operation is normal because it symbolises the right of resistance against the (Israeli) occupation and its crimes," a statement said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he had ordered the Israeli mission at the United Nations to take the matter to the Security Council.
Danny Dayan, the head of Yesha, the main settlers` organisation, said the "fact that the Israeli army has to rely on the Palestinian security forces as partners to keep us safe can only explode in our faces."
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said "we clearly and firmly condemn all forms of violence, and I condemn what happened last night in Itamar, just as I condemn the crimes against Palestinians."
Tensions between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the area have been extremely high in recent days.
On Monday, Israeli soldiers fired live rounds at Palestinians after they fought with settlers near Nablus.
A week earlier police and settlers clashed as officers moved in to remove illegal structures erected in a settlement outpost west of Nablus.
That prompted settlers to firebomb a Palestinian house, which saw two children hospitalised for smoke inhalation.
They also smashed shops and cars in the southern city of Hebron and cut down 500 olive trees planted at a former settlement outpost.
Settlers routinely stage so-called "price tag" attacks when police and soldiers demolish illegal structures they have built, taking it out on the Palestinians for what they consider "anti-settler" activity by the government.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon counseled against such action, saying it it is morally wrong and "could only hurt us from a political and security point of view."
The last deadly attack on a West Bank settlement was on August 31, when four settlers were killed near Hebron. Two other Israelis were wounded in an attack the next day in Ramallah.
The following month, the Palestinian Authority said those responsible for both attacks had been arrested. They were identified as members of the rival Hamas group that controls the Gaza Strip.
In June 2002, a Palestinian killed five Israelis in an attack on Itamar.
The international community considers illegal Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and 14 of the 15 Security Council members recently backed a resolution condemning Israel for continuing settlement activity.
The United States vetoed the resolution, saying it did not think the UN was the right forum to address the issue, but reiterated its opposition to Israeli settlement building.