An attacker opened fire in a crowded restaurant district in central Tel Aviv on Thursday night, killing at least two people and injuring several others before fleeing into a dense residential area, Israeli officials said.
Police said there were “evidence” the attack was a politically motivated attack — the fourth deadly attack in Israel in less than three weeks at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The militant Hamas group, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack but took no responsibility.
Hours after the shooting, the alleged gunman remained at large. Hundreds of Israeli police officers, canine units and army special forces conducted a massive manhunt in central Tel Aviv, searching building by building in the densely populated neighborhoods.
Amichai Eshel, the Tel Aviv police commander, said the gunman opened fire at a crowded bar around 9 p.m. and then fled.
“Our working assumption is that he’s still around,” he told reporters. “At the moment there are indications that this is a terrorist attack, but I have to be very careful and say that we are also looking at other indications.”
The Israeli rescue service Magen David Adom said two men, around the age of 30, were killed. Another seven people were injured, three of them seriously, it said.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with senior security officials late Thursday, and they agreed to “continue to direct large-scale reinforcements to Tel Aviv,” his office said in a statement.
At least one shooting took place on Dizengoff Street, a central thoroughfare. Dizengoff Street has been the site of several deadly attacks over the years. The popular nightlife district was packed on Thursday evening, the start of the Israeli weekend.
Television footage showed armed officers running down Dizengoff Street and side streets trying to track down the attacker, Reuters reported.
Police spokesman Eli Levy said a “terrorist opened fire at close range and then fled on foot,” according to Reuters. He urged residents of the surrounding areas not to leave their homes. “Don’t stick your heads out the window. Stay off your balconies,” Levy said on Channel 13.
“It’s an atmosphere of war. Soldiers and police are everywhere… They searched the restaurant,” and people are crying, restaurant worker Binyamin Blum told AFP.
Tensions ran high after a series of attacks by Palestinian attackers killed 11 people just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began almost a week ago.
Last month, a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire in a city in central Israel.. Days earlier, two gunmen killed two young police officers during a rampage in downtown Hadera, and a week earlier, a lone gunman killed four people in a car ram and knife attack in the southern city of Beersheba.
Last year, protests and clashes during Ramadan sparked an 11-day Gaza war.
Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders have held a series of meetings in recent weeks, and Israel has taken a number of steps to calm tensions, including issuing thousands of additional work permits to Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.
Before the attack, Israel said it would allow women, children and men over 40 from the occupied West Bank to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem on Friday, the first weekly prayers of Ramadan. Tens of thousands were expected.
The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and sits atop a hill that is the holiest site for Jews, which they refer to as the Temple Mount. The holy site has long been a focus of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East War. The Palestinians want all three areas to form their future state. The last serious and substantive peace talks collapsed more than a decade ago, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem in an internationally unrecognized move and considers the entire city its capital.
It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but along with neighboring Egypt it imposed a crippling blockade on the territory after the militant Hamas group seized power from rival Palestinian forces two years later. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since then.
The recent attacks appear to have been carried out by lone fighters, possibly with the help of accomplices. No Palestinian militant group has claimed them, although Hamas has welcomed the attacks.
Hamas spokesman Abdelatif Al-Qanou said late Thursday that “the heroic attack at the heart of the (Israeli) entity has struck the Zionist security system and demonstrated our people’s ability to harm the occupation.”
Israel says the conflict stems from the Palestinians’ refusal to accept its existence as a Jewish state, blaming the attacks in part on incitement on social media. Palestinians say such attacks are the inevitable result of a nearly 55-year military occupation that shows no sign of ending.