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 the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Later in the day, thousands of West Bank Palestinians were scheduled to enter Jerusalem for the first Friday prayers of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was scheduled to meet with senior security officials on Friday morning. It was not immediately clear whether Israel would continue or change its plan to allow Palestinian believers into Jerusalem. Protests and clashes in the holy city during Ramadan last year eventually sparked an 11-day Gaza war.
“We will expand our actions against the wave of terror through offense, defense and reconnaissance,” Secretary of Defense Benny Gantz said ahead of the meeting. “The price we will exact from the attackers and those who send them will be high.”
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.
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.
Israeli police chief Kobi Shabtai said his forces, army and the Shin Bet security agency spent a “difficult night” tracking down the attacker.
“We managed to come full circle this morning through intelligence and operational cooperation and kill the terrorist in a gunfight,” he said.
The Shin Bet identified the attacker as Raad Hazem, a 28-year-old Palestinian from Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
It suggested he acted alone as 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. 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.
The attacks have presented the Israeli authorities with a challenge. 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 variety of meetings in recent weeks 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.
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 and thousands of police officers were to be mobilized for the gatherings. It wasn’t clear how Thursday’s shooting would affect those plans.
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 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 broke down more than a decade ago, and Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood, although he supports steps to improve their economy and everyday 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.
It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005. But along with neighboring Egypt, it imposed a crippling blockade on the area 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.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.