Four Israelis were killed last night in a West Bank shooting presumed to be the work of Palestinian militants little more than 24 hours before President Barack Obama hosts a dinner summit to start the first direct peace negotiations for 20 months.
The attack near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, outside the Palestinian city of Hebron, followed a lengthy period of relative calm. It was the most lethal shooting of Israelis for many months and the first fatal one since a policeman was killed in June, also outside Hebron.
Unconfirmed reports were that gunmen fired at a car containing two men and two women, including one who was pregnant, and that the victims were all members of the same family. The reports said they were residents of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai in the South Hebron Hills.
The first reports were that the attack occurred on Route 60, a main arterial road through the occupied West Bank used by both Israeli and Palestinian motorists. The attack cast a shadow over an imminent 48 hours of intense diplomatic activity in Washington as both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in the city ahead of meetings – including tonight's White House dinner – before the formal launch of the new direct talks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tomorrow.
The exact circumstances of the attack were not immediately clear but the Ynet news service quoted a paramedic who went to the scene, Guy Gonen, as saying the victims were shot at close range in what appeared to be a "well planned ambush".
There were reports that the Israeli military had been braced for possible violence before the talks by Palestinian groups opposed to negotiations with Israel. No Palestinian group claimed immediate responsibility for the attack but Hamas, which has repeatedly criticised Mr Abbas for agreeing to direct talks with Israel, praised it.
One of its spokesmen in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said it was "a natural response to the crimes of the occupation," and said it exposed the limits of security co-operation between the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Israel.