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(Jerusalem) - Those responsible for the brutal stabbing to death of five family members living in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, near Nablus in the West Bank, should be held fully accountable, Human Rights Watch said today.

A Palestinian news agency, Ma'an, reproduced a statement from the "Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - Imad Mughniyah Brigades," a Palestinian armed group, claiming responsibility for the killings and justifying them as "a natural reaction to the massacres" committed by Israeli forces in Gaza and the West Bank. The group's involvement or a political motivation for the killings could not be confirmed.

A spokesman for Israeli police, Mickey Rosenfeld, and an Israel Defense Force spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that between 9 p.m. and midnight on March 11, 2011, one or more intruders killed two adults and three of their six children in their home in the Itamar settlement. Israeli media reported that the children were boys aged 3 and 11, and a one-month-old girl, and that an older daughter, 12, discovered the bodies in their beds when she returned home at 12:30 a.m.

"There can be no political or other justification for the brutal killing of these family members," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Similar past unlawful attacks involving Palestinian armed groups raise concern that such groups were involved here as well. That possibility should be fully investigated."

The Israeli news website YNET reported that the Israeli military had detained 20 Palestinians from the Nablus area on March 12 in connection with the killings. Human Rights Watch documented past attacks by Palestinian armed groups against Israeli settlers, including an attack for which Hamas claimed responsibility that killed four Israeli settlers near Hebron on August 31, 2010.

A group calling itself the Imad Mughniyah Brigades, named after a Hizbollah leader assassinated in Damascus in 2008, has claimed responsibility in the past for attacks involving stabbings of Israelis. Ma'an reported that Israeli officials had dismissed prior claims of responsibility by the group for attacks that appeared to have been perpetrated by others.

Palestinian armed groups have previously sought to justify attacks on settlers because the settlements are illegal under international humanitarian law. While the settlements themselves violate the Geneva Conventions, that never justifies attacks on settlers, who are protected civilians under international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has also documented attacks by settlers from Itamar and other nearby settlements against residents and property of Palestinian communities in the Nablus area, including so-called "price tag" attacks against Palestinians launched in response to the Israeli government's demolition of settlement outposts, which are illegal under Israeli as well as international humanitarian law. Palestinian media reported what appeared to be reprisal attacks by settlers in three Palestinian villages after the Itamar killings. The United Nations has documented 44 other settler attacks so far in 2011. The unlawfulness of settler attacks on Palestinian civilians cannot justify attacks on Israeli civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

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