TEL AVIV – A Palestinian opened fire into a crowded bar in central Tel Aviv, killing at least two people and wounding several others. The attacker, who was from the occupied West Bank, eluded police for hours before he was killed in a shootout with security forces early Friday, officials said.
It was the fourth deadly attack in Israel by Palestinians in less than three weeks and came at a time of heightened tensions around the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year eventually ignited an 11-day Gaza war.
The militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip praised the attack but did not claim responsibility.
Hundreds of Israeli police officers, canine units, and army special forces, had conducted a massive manhunt in central Tel Aviv, searching building by building through densely populated residential neighborhoods.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency said they eventually cornered the attacker in a mosque in the Jaffa neighborhood, where he was killed in an exchange of fire.
“After a difficult night, and after long hours of activity by police, the army and the Shin Bet, we succeeded this morning, through intelligence and operational cooperation, to close the circle and to kill the terrorist in a shootout,” Israeli police chief Kobi Shabtai said.
Thursday’s attack took place at the start of the Israeli weekend in the popular nightlife area. Medics described scenes of panic, with dozens of people fleeing after the shots rang out.
Israel's Magen David Adom emergency service said two men around 30 years old were killed. Another seven people were wounded, three of them seriously, it said.
Eleven Israelis were killed in three previous attacks, making this one of the worst waves of violence in years.
The shooting took place on Dizengoff Street, a central thoroughfare that has seen other attacks over the years. In the most recent, an Arab citizen of Israel shot and killed two Israelis and wounded several others on the street in January 2016.
Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders have held a flurry of meetings in recent weeks, and Israel has taken a number of steps aimed at calming tensions, including issuing thousands of additional work permits for Palestinians from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Prior to the attack, Israel had said it would allow women, children and men over 40 from the occupied West Bank to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem on Friday, the first weekly prayers of Ramadan. Tens of thousands were expected to attend.
The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and sits on a hilltop that is the most sacred site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount. The holy site has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel has worked to sideline the Palestinian issue in recent years, instead focusing on forging alliances with Arab states against Iran. But the century-old conflict remains as intractable as ever.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories to form their future state. The last substantive peace talks broke down more than a decade ago, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and considers the entire city to be its capital. It is building and expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which most of the international community considers illegal.
It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005. But along with neighboring Egypt, it imposed a crippling blockade on the territory after the militant Hamas group seized power from rival Palestinian forces two years later. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since then.
Hamas spokesman Abdelatif Al-Qanou said late Thursday that the "the heroic attack in the heart of the (Israeli) entity has struck the Zionist security system and proved our people’s ability to hurt the occupation.”
On March 29, a 27-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank shot and killed five people in the central town of Bnei Brak. Two days earlier, a shooting attack by two Islamic State group sympathizers in the central city of Hadera killed two police officers. The week before, an IS supporter killed four people in a car-ramming and stabbing attack in the southern city of Beersheba. The Hadera and Beersheba attacks were carried out by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The recent attacks appear to have been carried out by lone assailants, perhaps with the help of accomplices. No Palestinian militant group has claimed them, though Hamas has welcomed the attacks.
Israel says the conflict stems from the Palestinians' refusal to accept its existence as a Jewish state and blames 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.