A Palestinian assailant shot and killed two parents driving with their four children along a West Bank road, the Israeli military said, amid mounting unrest surrounding a Jerusalem site holy to both Muslims and Jews.

The military, which called the violence a “ruthless, heinous, barbaric attack,” said forces were scouring the area, near the Palestinian village of Beit Furik. The military said the four children in the car were lightly wounded.

“There was very, very massive fire,” Eli Bin, the director of Israel’s rescue service MDA, told Israeli Channel 2 TV news. “We didn’t have much choice but to pronounce them dead on the spot.” He later told Israel Radio the intensity of the violence and the amount of gunfire was “something we haven’t seen here for a long time”.

The attack comes as tensions continue to flare between Israelis and Palestinians over the Jerusalem site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Temples, and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, site of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the spot from where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

Over the past two weeks, Palestinian protesters have clashed with Israeli police at the hilltop compound and unrest has spilled over to Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem and the West Bank. In one incident in Jerusalem last month, an Israeli motorist was killed over the New Year holiday after his car was pelted with stones.

British Ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey tweeted: “Condemn the murder of two parents in front of their children in the West Bank tonight. Thoughts are with the children.”

UK chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis responded to the attack, saying: “With a deep sense of shock and great pain, we mourn the senseless and brutal murder of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin in the presence of their four young children. We grieve alongside Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbanit Chana Henkin and all of their family. At this time of immense tragedy, we redouble our prayers for peace and security in the region.”

It was not immediately clear if a militant group was behind the shooting, or if it was a so-called “lone wolf” attack against Israelis staged by Palestinians who act spontaneously and with no militant support. The armed wing of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, stopped short of claiming responsibility but welcomed the attack.

“We praise the heroic operation that fighters in the West Bank carried out and we consider it a true response to the occupier’s crime,” the armed wing said on its Twitter page. It called for more attacks.

Following the attack, Israel’s defence minister Moshe Ya’alon visited the site this morning.

Diana Hananshvili/MOD/Israel Sun  02-10-2015 DM Ya'alon visited this morning the site where Eitam and Na'ama Henkin were murdered in West Bank terror attack. Parents murdered while four children physically unhurt after terrorists in vehicle fire at victims' car on road between Itamar and Elon Moreh.  ?? ???????, ??? (????) ????? ???? ?????? ????? ? ?????.  ?????: ????? ????????? ???? ???????.

Ya’alon visited this morning the site where Eitam and Na’ama Henkin were murdered in West Bank terror attack (Diana Hananshvili/MOD/Israel Sun 02-10-2015)

The holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, as their future capital. Under a long-standing arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but not pray there, while Jordan retains custodial rights.