Israel searches for assailants after ax attack near Tel Aviv: live updates
TEL AVIV — Israeli forces were conducting a full-scale search on Friday for two Palestinians suspected of killing three Israelis the previous night in an attack that further stoked tensions that have been building for more than a month.
Two assailants, including at least one armed with an axe, killed three people and injured several others in the mostly ultra-Orthodox town of Elad in central Israel on Thursday night, witnesses and an official say of Israeli defence.
On Friday night, Israeli officials said one of the victims drove the two assailants to Elad, unaware of their murderous plans.
Oren Ben-Yiftah, 35, a father of six from Lod, Israel, had driven the men away, according to two defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The assailants killed him in his car, then attacked the others.
Police said they were looking for a vehicle seen fleeing the scene of the attack.
“We are investing a tremendous amount of intelligence and operational effort,” Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said Friday. “to find their escape”.
The violence erupted on Israel’s Independence Day, a national holiday. But many Palestinians commemorate this day as what they call the “nakba” or the “catastrophe”.
Thursday’s killings brought the death toll from a wave of Arab attacks since late March to 19 – the worst string of killings in years outside of an all-out war. Israel responded with a series of raids in the occupied West Bank and nearly 30 Palestinians were killed in the violence, according to local media. Most of them have been involved in attacks or clashes with Israeli forces.
Israeli-Palestinian tensions have been heightened by repeated outbreaks of violence inside the Al Aqsa Mosque compound – Jerusalem’s holiest site for Muslims and for Jews, who revere it as the Temple Mount, the site of two ancient Jewish temples. It’s a frequent melting pot of violence that can quickly escalate into a much larger conflagration.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fueled largely by disputes over the same holy site. But both sides have signaled over the past month that they want to avoid another war.
Despite fears of another clash inside the mosque compound on Thursday, it was relatively calm there. However, the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank; and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that dominates the Gaza Strip, issued strident statements denouncing certain Israeli police actions during the day.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack in Elad, which was close to an Independence Day rally with hundreds in attendance. It was not immediately clear if the gathering was the target of the attack.
A Hamas spokesman hailed the attack as “a brave and heroic act” and “a natural response to the occupation’s violations against the holy Al Aqsa Mosque”.
On Saturday, Yehya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, warned that any further Israeli police raids inside the mosque compound would prompt a response. In a fiery speech, he urged members of Israel’s Arab minority to “ready your cleavers, axes or knives”.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack.
Israel Police said late Thursday that they had set up checkpoints along several roads and officers in a helicopter had been deployed to search for the vehicle that was seen fleeing the site of the attack in Elad .
Authorities said they were looking for two suspects, aged 19 and 20, from a village near the West Bank city of Jenin. Several other assailants in the recent wave of attacks also came from the Jenin area, and Israeli forces carried out arrest raids in and around the city that sometimes escalated into shootings.
An Israeli defense official said Friday’s search focused on Israeli territory and forces were on alert in case the same assailants tried to strike again. Unlike previous attacks, authorities released the names and photos of the suspects lest they attempt to impersonate Israelis, the official added.