Israel Searches for Assailants Who Killed 3 People in Ax Rampage

TEL AVIV — Israeli forces were conducting a large-scale search on Friday for two Palestinians suspected of killing three Israelis the night before in an attack that further fueled tensions that have been building for more than a month.

Two attackers, at least one of them armed with an ax, killed three passers-by and wounded several others in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox town of Elad in central Israel on Thursday night, according to witnesses and an Israeli defense official. The police said that they were searching for a vehicle seen fleeing the scene of the attack.

“We are investing a huge amount of intelligence and operational effort,” the Israel Police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, said on Friday, “to track down their escape route.”

The violence erupted on Israeli Independence Day, a national holiday. But many Palestinians commemorate the day as what they call the “nakba” or “catastrophe.”

The killings on Thursday brought the death toll to 19 from a wave of Arab attacks since late March — the worst spate of killings in years, outside of an all-out war. Israel has responded with a series of raids in the occupied West Bank and nearly 30 Palestinians have been killed in the violence, according to local media reports. Most of them were involved in attacks or confrontations with Israeli forces.

Israeli-Palestinian tensions have been heightened by repeated outbreaks of violence at Al Aqsa Mosque compound — the holiest site in Jerusalem for Muslims and for Jews, who revere it as the Temple Mount, the site of two ancient Jewish temples. It is a frequent crucible of violence that can quickly escalate into a much broader conflagration.

Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fed largely by disputes surrounding the same holy site. But both sides have signaled over the past month that they want to avoid another war.

Despite worries of another clash at the mosque compound on Thursday, it was relatively calm there. Nonetheless, the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank; and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that dominates the Gaza Strip, issued strident statements denouncing some Israeli police action during the day.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack in Elad, which was near a gathering with hundreds of participants. It was not immediately clear whether the gathering was the target of the attack.

A Hamas spokesman praised the attack as “a brave and heroic act” and “a natural response to the violations of the occupation against the blessed Al Aqsa Mosque.”

On Saturday, Yehya Sinwar, the Hamas leader, had warned that any further raids by the Israeli police inside the mosque compound would prompt a response. In a fiery speech, he urged members of Israel’s Arab minority to “get your cleavers, axes or knives ready.”

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the attack.

Encouraged by Hamas, Palestinian protesters at the mosque compound over the past weeks have tried to prevent visits by Israeli Jews during the hours set for non-Muslim visitors and tourists, and have thrown stones and fired fireworks at the Israeli security forces stationed at the edges of the compound.

The police have acted mainly to secure the visitors’ access, but the police actions, including using sponge-covered bullets, sound grenades and tear gas to disperse rioters, have in many cases stoked Palestinian anger.

Palestinians view visits by ultranationalist Israelis to the compound, which have increased in recent years, as a provocation. They fear that such visits are part of a gradual effort to undermine Muslim access to the site.

Israel says there has been no change in the longstanding arrangements at the site: The Waqf — an Islamic trust, financed and overseen by neighboring Jordan, currently runs civil matters at the compound.

The Israeli police said late Thursday that they had set up checkpoints along several roads and that officers in a helicopter had been deployed to search for the vehicle that was seen fleeing from the attack site in Elad.

The authorities said that they were searching for two suspects, ages 19 and 20, from a village near the West Bank town of Jenin. Several other assailants in the recent wave of attacks have also come from the Jenin area, and Israeli forces have been conducting arrest raids in and around the town that have erupted into gunfights at times.

An Israeli defense official said that the searches on Friday were focusing on Israeli territory and that forces were on alert in case the same assailants attempted to strike again. Unlike in previous attacks, the authorities published the names and photos of the suspects for fear that they would try to pose as Israelis, the official added.

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