Jerusalem (AFP) – Palestinian attackers carried out a stabbing attack in a town near Tel Aviv on Thursday night, killing at least three people and wounding four others before fleeing in a vehicle, Israeli authorities said.
The police launched a large-scale search for the attackers, set up roadblocks and dispatched a helicopter. The stabbing incident, which came on Israel’s Independence Day, was the latest in a string of deadly attacks in Israeli cities in recent weeks.
“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 a meeting with senior security officials late Thursday.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have risen recently, with attacks in Israel, military operations in the occupied West Bank and violence at the most sensitive holy site in Jerusalem. The site, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, was the scene of fresh unrest earlier on Thursday.
Alon Rezkan, an Israeli Magen David Adom rescue service medic, described a “very difficult call” when he arrived at the scene in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv. He said he recognized three dead people in different locations. Officials said at least four others were injured, one of them in serious condition.
Israeli media quoted police as saying two of the attackers, and shortly before midnight, police said they were still searching for the attackers. They called on the public to avoid the area, and urged people to report suspicious vehicles or people to them.
Israel celebrated its independence day on Thursday, a festive national holiday in which people hold barbecues and attend air shows.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered a pre-holiday West Bank closure and bar Palestinians from entering Israel, to remain in effect through Sunday.
In Washington, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said US officials “strongly condemn” the attack on Elad.
“This was a horrific attack targeting innocent men and women, and it was particularly heinous as Israel celebrated its independence day,” Blinken said in a statement. “We remain in close contact with our Israeli friends and partners, and we stand firmly with them in the face of this attack.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government runs autonomous regions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, condemned the attack.
“The killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only leads to further deterioration at a time when we are all trying to achieve stability and prevent escalation,” the official Wafa news agency quoted him as saying.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack and linked it to the violence on the Temple Mount.
“The storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque cannot go unpunished,” said Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem. The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance warned against.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque complex is the third holiest site in Islam, and is built on top of a hill considered the holiest site for the Jews, who call it the Temple Mount. It lies at the emotional heart of the conflict, and Palestinians and Israeli police there have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks.
Early Thursday, occupation police They entered the site to evacuate the Palestinian demonstratorsAfter the resumption of Jewish visits that had been suspended on Islamic holidays.
With the resumption of visits, dozens of Palestinians gathered, chanting “God is great.” Quarrels broke out when the police went to arrest one of them. Police fired rubber-coated bullets into a sprawling plaza while some Palestinians took shelter inside the mosque itself. Police were later seen inside the entrance to the fortified mosque.
Police said they responded to dozens of people who chanted incitement and threw stones, and that a police officer was slightly injured. The Palestinian Red Crescent’s emergency service said two Palestinians were taken to hospital after being hit with batons.
In contrast to previous confrontations, Palestinian eyewitnesses said there was no stone-throwing at first. Some of those taking shelter inside the mosque started throwing stones and other objects when the police entered the building. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
Under the informal arrangement known as the status quo, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. In recent years, they have visited in increasing numbers with police escorts and many of them prayed discreetly, angering the Palestinians as well as neighboring Jordan, which is the guardian of the site. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to eventually seize or divide the site.
Israel says it is committed to maintaining the status quo and accuses Hamas of instigating the latest violence.
It was some of the worst bloodshed in years. At least 18 Israelis were killed in five attacks – including a stabbing attack in southern Israel, a shooting in the Tel Aviv area and a shooting last weekend in a West Bank settlement. Nearly 30 Palestinians were killed in the violence – most of them carried out attacks or participated in confrontations with Israeli forces in the West Bank. But an unarmed woman and a lawyer were also killed, who appeared to have been accidentally shot.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fueled largely by similar unrest in Jerusalem.