JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli security forces hunted down and killed a Palestinian who opened fire on a crowded bar in central Tel Aviv early Friday, killing two and wounding over 10 in an attack that sparked scenes of stampede in the heart of the city busy city.
It was the fourth deadly attack by Palestinians in Israel in three weeks and came at a time of heightened tension around the start of Ramadan. Tens of thousands of Palestinians attended the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month in Jerusalem amid a heavy Israeli security presence, with no immediate reports of unrest.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with senior security officials and announced that a major intersection in the northern West Bank near the attacker’s hometown would be closed indefinitely.
“Any killer will know we’re going to get them, and anyone who helps terrorists should know the price they’re going to pay will be unbearable,” Bennett said in a statement.
Israel went ahead with plans to allow Palestinian women, children and elderly men from the occupied West Bank to enter Jerusalem for prayer. Protests and clashes in the holy city during Ramadan last year eventually sparked an 11-day Gaza war.
Thursday’s shooting took place at a crowded bar on Dizengoff Street, a central thoroughfare that has seen other attacks over the years. Thursday evening marks the start of the Israeli weekend and the area was packed with people in bars and restaurants.
Videos circulating on social media saw dozens of terrified people running through the streets while police searched for the attacker and ordered people to stay indoors. The deceased have been identified as Tomer Morad and Eytam Magini, childhood friends in their late 20s from Kfar Saba, a town north of Tel Aviv.
Hundreds of Israeli police officers, canine units and army special forces had been conducting a massive manhunt throughout Tel Aviv throughout the night, searching building by building through densely populated neighborhoods.
Early Friday, authorities said they found the attacker near a mosque in Jaffa, an Arab neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv, and killed him in a shootout.
Shin Bet internal security identified the attacker as Raad Hazem, a 28-year-old Palestinian from Jenin in the occupied West Bank. It said he did not belong to any organized militant group and had no criminal record. It said he entered Israel illegally without a permit.
The Jenin refugee camp was the scene of one of the deadliest battles of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, 20 years ago. In April 2002, Israeli forces fought Palestinian militants in the camp for nearly three weeks. According to the United Nations, 23 Israeli soldiers and at least 52 Palestinians, including civilians, were killed.
The Israeli military conducts frequent arrest raids in Jenin, which often come under fire. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and coordinates with Israel on security issues, appears to have little control over the area.
After Thursday’s attack, 13 Israelis were killed in recent weeks, making this one of the worst spate of violence in years.
The militant Hamas group, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack but took no responsibility. President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the PA, condemned the attack, saying the killing of civilians on both sides “can only lead to a further deterioration of the situation”.
All attackers appear to have acted individually or with minimal support from a small cell. Three of them are said to have identified with the extremist group “Islamic State”. But militant groups do not appear to have trained them or orchestrated the attacks.
To avoid a repeat of last year’s war, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders have held a series of meetings in recent weeks to discuss ways to maintain calm.
Israel has taken a number of steps to calm tensions, including issuing thousands of additional work permits to Palestinians from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. But the attacks have prompted growing calls in Israel for a tougher crackdown.
Israel on Friday allowed women, children and men over 40 from the occupied West Bank to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem. The Muslim body that oversees the site said 80,000 people attended the prayers.
Police mobilized thousands of emergency personnel in and around the Old City, home to Al-Aqsa and other holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and is located on 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 has worked in recent years to put the Palestinian issue aside and instead focused on forging alliances with Arab states against Iran. But the centuries-old conflict remains as stubborn as ever.
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 substantive peace talks collapsed more than a decade ago, and Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood, although he supports steps to improve their economy and quality of life.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem in an internationally unrecognized move and considers the entire city its capital. It is building and expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which is considered illegal by the majority of the international community.
Israel 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.
Israel says the conflict stems from the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize their right to exist 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.