Three Israelis killed in knife attack near Tel Aviv

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JERUSALEM (AP) — A pair of Palestinian assailants stabbed in a city near Tel Aviv Thursday night, killing at least three people and wounding four others before fleeing in a vehicle, Israeli authorities said.

The police launched a massive search for the assailants, set up barricades and sent in a helicopter. The stabbing, which took place on Israel’s Independence Day, was the latest in a series of deadly attacks in Israeli cities in recent weeks.

“We will lay our hands on the terrorists and their supportive environment, and they will pay the price,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said after meeting top security officials Thursday night.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have spiked recently, with 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 fresh unrest early Thursday.

Alon Rizkan, a doctor with Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service, described a “very difficult call” when he arrived on the scene in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. He said that he identified three people dead in various places. At least four others were injured, one seriously, authorities said.

Israeli media quoted police as saying there were two assailants, and just before midnight, police said they were still searching for the attackers. They called on the public to avoid the area and urged people to report suspicious vehicles or people to them.

Israel marked its Independence Day on Thursday, a festive national holiday where people often barbecue and attend air shows.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the closure of the West Bank, imposed before the holiday and preventing Palestinians from entering Israel, which will remain in effect until Sunday.

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said US officials “vehemently condemn” the Elad attack.

“This was a horrific attack on innocent men and women, and it was particularly heinous as Israel celebrated its Independence Day,” Blinken said in a statement. “We remain in close contact with our Israeli friends and partners and stand firm with them in the face of this attack.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government administers autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, condemned the attack.

“The killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only leads to further deterioration at a time when all of us are trying to achieve stability and prevent escalation,” he said, quoted by the official Wafa news agency.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack and linked it to violence at the Jerusalem holy site.

“The assault on the Al-Aqsa mosque cannot go unpunished,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said. “The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance had warned about.”

The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam and is built on top of a hill that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount. It is at the emotional heart of the conflict, and Palestinians and Israeli police have clashed there repeatedly in recent weeks.

Early Thursday morning, Israeli police entered the site to clear Palestinian protesters, after Jewish visits that had been halted for the Muslim holidays resumed.

When the visits resumed, dozens of Palestinians gathered and chanted “God is the greatest.” Fights broke out when the police went to arrest one of them. Police fired rubber-coated bullets at the sprawling esplanade as some Palestinians took refuge inside the mosque. Police could later be seen just inside an entrance to the mosque barricaded.

Police said they responded to dozens of people shouting incitements and throwing stones, and one police officer was slightly injured. The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said two Palestinians were taken to a hospital after being beaten with batons.

Unlike previous clashes, Palestinian witnesses said there was initially no stone throwing. Some of those who took refuge inside the mosque began to throw stones and other objects when the police entered the building. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Under informal arrangements known as the status quo, Jews can visit the site but not pray there. In recent years, they have come in increasing numbers with police escorts and many have prayed quietly, angering Palestinians and neighboring Jordan, who is the site’s custodian. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to eventually take over the site or partition it.

Israel says it is committed to maintaining the status quo and accuses Hamas of inciting the recent violence.

It has been some of the worst bloodshed in years. At least 18 Israelis have been killed in five attacks, including a stabbing 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 been killed in violence, most of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank. But an unarmed woman and a lawyer who was apparently shot inadvertently were also killed.

Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fueled in large part by similar unrest in Jerusalem.

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