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(photo credit: Channel 2)
After months of quiet in the West Bank, a father of seven was killed in a drive-by shooting attack near the northern Samaria settlement of Shavei Shomron on Thursday.
The victim was identified as Rabbi Meir Chai, a 45-year-old resident of the settlement whose children range in age from two months to 18 years.
Chai was the fourth person killed by terrorists in the West Bank this year. In March, two traffic policemen, Senior Warrant Officers Yehezkel Ramazreger and Chief Warrant Officer David Rabinovitch, were shot dead in the Jordan Valley, and in April, 13-year-old Shlomo Nativ was stabbed to death near his home in the Gush Etzion settlement of Bat Ayin.
Chai was driving in his minivan on Highway 57, between Shavei Shomron and Einav, when a Palestinian car overtook him and someone in the car opened fire. Chai was hit in the head and drove off the road.
Gil Bismot, head of the Zaka rescue and recovery organization in Judea and Samaria, said several bullet holes riddled the car.
"I'm not a ballistics expert, but an automatic weapon seems to have been involved," Bismot told The Jerusalem Post.
"At first, emergency services thought the incident involved a road accident. When our volunteers and security personnel arrived on the scene, it became clear that this was a shooting attack," he said.
Magen David Adom paramedics arrived quickly, but despite their efforts, were forced to pronounce Chai dead.
"We are looking into every possible direction with intelligence and by searching nearby villages," said Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. "We will continue acting to prevent terrorist attacks and to find the murderers."
Large IDF and Border Police forces began searching for the terrorists. According to Palestinian reports, the Imad Mughniyeh Group - named after the Hizbullah commander assassinated in Damascus two years ago - claimed responsibility for the attack. It also claimed to be affiliated with Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigade.
The group said its members "withdrew from the area safely." It also warned of "a series of attacks to come."
The IDF set up checkpoints on major roads in the area in an effort to capture the gunmen and was coordinating with Palestinian Authority security forces, which reportedly found a car set ablaze in a field near Tulkarm that might have been used by the terrorists.
A spokesman for Shavei Shomron said that Chai had been a very well-liked and respected man who had contributed a great deal to the community, and that residents "are very shocked, hurt, and angry."
Chai was known for teaching Torah to students in Shavei Shomron and for his special kindness to children. He was the rabbi for kindergartens in the area.
Spokesman Nachson Yeshurun added that residents had expressed their anger "not only at losing a friend," but also at the government's lifting of West Bank roadblocks to ease Palestinian freedom of movement, which many said led directly to Thursday's attack and allowed the shooter to evade arrest.
MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) blamed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the attack.
Ben-Ari said that the 10-month moratorium on settlement construction and a possible prisoner exchange deal to free IDF soldier Gilad Schalit indicated that "Jewish blood has been forsaken."
"Netanyahu is surrendering to terrorism," he said.
Meanwhile, enraged by the shooting attack, several youths from the Yitzhar settlement began hurling stones at the neighboring village of Burin, Judea and Samaria Police said.
Palestinians responded by throwing stones in the settlers' direction, and a 14-year-old from Yitzhar was struck on the head, sustaining light to moderate wounds, police said. He was taken to Petah Tikva's Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus.
Ben Hartman, Yaakov Lappin and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.