By JOSEPH KRAUSS
JERUSALEM (AP) — An attacker went on a stabbing rampage in a town near Tel Aviv on Thursday night, killing at least three people and wounding four others before fleeing in a vehicle, Israeli authorities said.
Police said they suspected it was a Palestinian militant attack and launched a massive search for the assailant, setting up roadblocks and dispatching a helicopter. The stabbing, coming on Israel’s Independence Day, was the latest in a string of deadly attacks in Israeli cities in recent weeks.
The identity of the assailant was not yet known. But Israeli-Palestinian tensions have soared in recent weeks, 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 new unrest earlier Thursday.
Alon Rizkan, a medic with Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service, described a “very difficult call” when he arrived at the scene in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv. He said he identified three dead people at various locations and four others who were wounded, two seriously.
Police said they were still searching for the attacker. 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 in which people typically hold barbecues and attend air shows.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the attack appeared to be “the latest in what has been a string of despicable terrorist attacks that have rocked Israel.”
“Our commitment to our Israeli partners, to Israel’s security, that is ironclad,” he added.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack and linked it to violence at the Jerusalem holy site.
“The storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque can’t go unpunished,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said. “The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance had warned against.”
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam and is built on a hilltop that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount. It lies at the emotional heart of the conflict, and Palestinians and Israeli police have clashed there repeatedly in recent weeks.
Early Thursday, Israeli police entered the site to clear away Palestinian protesters, after Jewish visits that had been paused for the Muslim holidays resumed.
As the visits resumed, dozens of Palestinians gathered, chanting “God is greatest.” Scuffles broke out when the police went to arrest one of them. Police fired rubber-coated bullets on the sprawling esplanade as some Palestinians sheltered inside the mosque itself. The police could later be seen just inside an entrance to the barricaded mosque.
The police said they responded to dozens of people who were shouting incitement and throwing stones, and that one police officer was lightly injured. The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said two Palestinians were taken to a hospital after being struck with batons.
Unlike in previous confrontations, Palestinian witnesses said there was no rock-throwing initially. Some of those who sheltered inside the mosque began throwing stones and other objects when police entered the building. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
Under informal arrangements known as the status quo, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. In recent years, they have visited in ever-increasing numbers with police escorts and many have discreetly prayed, angering the Palestinians as well as neighboring Jordan, which is the custodian of the site. The 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.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fueled in large part by similar unrest in Jerusalem.
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