A pair of Palestinian attackers went on a stabbing rampage 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.
Police launched a search for the assailants, setting up roadblocks and dispatching a helicopter. The stabbing, coming on Israel’s Independence Day, was the latest in a string of deadly attacks in Israeli cities in recent weeks.
Israeli-Palestinian tensions have soared recently, with the attacks in Israel, military operations in the occupied West Bank and violence at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site. The site, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, was the scene of new unrest earlier Thursday.
Alon Rizkan, a medic with Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service, described a “very difficult call” when he arrived in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv. He said he identified three dead people at various locations. At least four others were wounded, one critically, officials said.
Israeli media quoted police as saying there were two assailants, and as of midnight, police said they were still searching for the attackers. They urged the public to avoid the area and to report suspicious vehicles or people to them.
Israel marked its Independence Day on Thursday, a festive national holiday in which people typically hold barbecues and attend air shows.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the attack appeared to be “the latest in what has been a string of despicable terrorist attacks that have rocked Israel.”
“Our commitment to our Israeli partners, to Israel’s security, that is ironclad,” he added.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack and linked it to violence at the Jerusalem holy site.
“The storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque can’t go unpunished,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said. “The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance had warned against.”
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam and is built on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount. It lies at the emotional heart of the conflict, and Palestinians and Israeli police have clashed there repeatedly in recent weeks.
Early Thursday, Israeli police entered the site to clear away Palestinian protesters, after Jewish visits that had been paused for the Muslim holidays resumed.
As the visits resumed, dozens of Palestinians gathered. Scuffles broke out when the police went to arrest one of them. Police fired rubber-coated bullets on the sprawling esplanade as some Palestinians sheltered inside the mosque itself. The police could later be seen just inside an entrance to the barricaded mosque.
The police said they responded to dozens of people who were shouting incitement and throwing stones, and that one police officer was lightly injured. The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said two Palestinians were taken to a hospital after being struck with batons.
Unlike in previous confrontations, Palestinian witnesses said there was no rock-throwing initially. Some of those who sheltered inside the mosque began throwing stones and other objects when police entered the building. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
The recent bloodshed has been some of the worst in years. At least 18 Israelis have died in five attacks, including a stabbing rampage in southern Israel, two other shootings in the Tel Aviv area and a shooting last weekend in a West Bank settlement. Nearly 30 Palestinians have died in violence, most of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in confrontations with Israeli forces in the West Bank. But an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been inadvertently shot were also killed.