JERUSALEM — Two assailants, including at least one armed with an axe, attacked bystanders in an Israeli town on Thursday evening, killing at least three people, according to initial reports from eyewitnesses, police and emergency services.
Israeli authorities called the assault, in which several other people were injured, a terrorist attack.
The attack followed a wave of violence by Arab assailants who had already killed 14 people in towns across Israel since late March, and came days after a militant Palestinian leader urged Arabs to “prepare your cleavers, axes or knives”.
Thursday’s attack also came after clashes between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem in recent weeks. And it raised the specter that Israel had entered a new period of protracted violence.
Despite fears of another clash at the mosque on Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, it was relatively calm there despite Israeli police arresting a Palestinian protester. Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas issued strong statements denouncing the police action.
On Saturday, Yehya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, warned that any further Israeli police raids inside the mosque compound would prompt a response. In a fiery speech, he urged members of Israel’s Arab minority to “ready your cleavers, axes or knives”.
Thursday’s attack took place in Elad, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox town in central Israel, just after dark.
Rescuers said they found the first death by a roundabout in Elad and two others in a nearby park.
“When we arrived, we realized it was a complex scene,” said Alon Rizkan, a paramedic with the Magen David Adom ambulance service. He described the three people who were pronounced dead at the scene as male, all in their 40s.
Several other injured men were transferred to hospitals, and hospital officials said at least two were in critical condition with head injuries.
Hours later, police said they were still investigating the circumstances of the attack, including the number of suspects involved. Details remained unclear: some witnesses reported seeing two assailants, both carrying axes. Others said one was armed with an ax and the other with a knife.
The assailants appear to have fled. Police said they set up checkpoints along several roads and officers in a police helicopter were searching for a vehicle seen fleeing the scene. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said soldiers would participate in the hunt.
No one claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack, but it was hailed by a Hamas spokesperson as “a courageous and heroic act” and “a natural response to the occupation’s violations against the holy Al Mosque. Aksa”.
The Aqsa Mosque compound is Jerusalem’s holiest site to Muslims and Jews, who revere it as the Temple Mount, the site of two ancient Jewish temples.
Prompted by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, protesters at the compound attempted to prevent visits by Israeli Jews during hours set for non-Muslim visitors and tourists, and threw rocks and set fires fireworks over the security forces. Police acted primarily to secure access for visitors, but police actions, including the use of sponge-covered bullets, stun grenades and tear gas to disperse rioters, fueled popular anger among residents. Palestinians.
Palestinians view visits by ultra-nationalist Israelis to the compound, which have increased in recent years, as a provocation, and fear the visits are part of a progressive effort to undermine Muslim access to the site. Israeli authorities say there have been no changes to the longstanding arrangements at the site.
Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Nazareth, Israel, and Iyad Abuheweila of Gaza City.