Israeli security forces were conducting a massive manhunt on Friday against two Palestinians suspected of carrying out a stabbing rampage near Tel Aviv that left three Israelis dead.
The knife attack on Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, was the latest in a string of deadly attacks deep within the country in recent weeks. It came as Israeli-Palestinian tensions were already heightened by violence at an important Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims.
Police say they are looking for two suspects, aged 19 and 20, from the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, which has re-emerged as a militant stronghold in the latest wave of violence – the worst Israel has seen since years. Several assailants came from inside or around Jenin, and Israeli forces launched arrest raids that sparked shootings there.
“We will get our hands on the terrorists and their supporting environment, and they will pay the price,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said after huddled with senior security officials Thursday night. Authorities said the attackers fled in a vehicle.
4 injured, 1 seriously
Doctors described a gruesome scene in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv. In addition to the three killed, four others were injured, one seriously.
Israel celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday, a festive national holiday when people typically have barbecues and watch air shows.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz extended the closure of the West Bank, imposed before the holidays to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel, which will remain in effect until Sunday.
In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned “the horrific attack on innocent men and women”.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government administers self-governing areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security, also condemned the attack.
“The killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only aggravates the situation at a time when we are all trying to achieve stability and prevent escalation,” the official Wafa news agency said.
Hamas welcomes attack
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, welcomed the attack and linked it to violence at the holy site in Jerusalem.
“The storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque cannot go unpunished,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said. “The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance warned against.”
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam and is built on a hill that is the holiest site to Jews, who call it the Temple Mount. It lies at the emotional heart of the conflict, and Palestinians and Israeli police have clashed there several times in recent weeks.
Under informal arrangements known as the status quo, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. In recent years, they have visited in ever-increasing numbers with police escorts and many have prayed quietly, angering Palestinians as well as neighboring Jordan, which is the site’s guardian. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to eventually take control of the site or divide it.
Israel says it is determined to maintain the status quo and accuses Hamas of inciting the recent violence.
At least 18 Israelis have been killed in five attacks since March, including another stabbing attack in southern Israel, two shootings in the Tel Aviv area and a shooting last weekend in a West Bank settlement. Nearly 30 Palestinians died in the violence, most of whom had carried out attacks or participated in clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank. But an unarmed woman and two apparent bystanders were also among those killed.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fueled in large part by similar unrest in Jerusalem.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – which includes Al-Aqsa and other major religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims – in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians want the three territories form their future state. The last serious peace talks failed more than ten years ago.