A woman holds a placard that reads in Hebrew "6 orphans" and depicting the pictures of Eitam and Na'ama Henkin who were shot dead on Thursday, during a protest in the city of Ashdod, Israel on October 4, 2015.

© Reuters/Amir Cohen

(Jerusalem) – The killing of an Israeli couple in the occupied West Bank on October 1, 2015, apparently by members of a Palestinian armed group, is a serious violation of the laws of war. The Israeli authorities should prosecute those responsible and ensure that Palestinian civilians are protected from retaliatory attacks.

“The killing of a husband and wife in their car while their four children watched is a despicable act that flies in the face of law and decency,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “No political motive can justify targeting civilians.”

Unidentified assailants shot Eitam and Naama Henkin to death as they drove along a road frequented by Israeli settlers near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. The couple, in their 30s, were residents of an Israeli settlement near the city of Ramallah. They were driving home with their four children, ages 4 months to 9 years. The children were not struck by the gunfire. Two Palestinian armed groups, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Fatah-linked Abdel Qader Husseini Brigades, each claimed responsibility.

The shooting was the fourth fatal attack against Israeli civilians in the West Bank in the last five months.

Eitam Henkin was a reserve officer in the Israeli army but not on active duty, an Israeli army spokesman said. Army reservists who are not on active duty are civilians and entitled to the protections that civilians enjoy under the laws of war, which are applicable in the occupied West Bank, Human Rights Watch said.

In what appeared to be a response to the shooting, unidentified assailants set fire to a car in a Palestinian village outside Ramallah and defaced a nearby house with graffiti calling for revenge. There were additional reports of attacks by Israeli settlers in various parts of the West Bank. The Israeli army, which controls law enforcement in the West Bank, should fulfill its duty to protect Palestinian civilians and civilian property, Human Rights Watch said.

In July, arsonists killed three members of the Dawabshe family – a husband, a wife, and their baby son – when they attacked the family’s home in the Palestinian village of Duma. Jewish militants are suspected in the attack, but Israeli authorities have not arrested any suspects.

Over nearly five decades, Israel has settled hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the West Bank, in violation of the international law prohibiting an occupying power from transferring its civilian population to occupied territory. That illegal act, however, does not deprive Israeli settlers of their civilian status.

“Civilian residents of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are protected under international law and not subject to attack,” Whitson said. “But Israel still has an obligation to remove them from the unlawful settlements.”