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Three people killed and at least four injured in attack in Israeli town of Elad

Three people have been killed and at least four more injured in the central Israeli town of Elad, in the latest in a spate of street attacks that have sent tensions soaring in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent weeks.

Israeli forces have launched a hunt for two Palestinian suspects, backed by a large deployment of security personnel, helicopters, drones and roadblocks. Police said the suspects were 19 and 20 years old and came from the town of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

Medics described a horrific scene in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv. Israeli media identified those killed as Yonatan Havakuk, Boaz Gol and Oren Ben Yiftah, three fathers in their 30s and 40s who together are survived by 16 children. Funerals will be held on Friday.

Police said the incident appeared to be a terror attack and Elad’s mayor called on residents to stay indoors during the hunt for the perpetrators.

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Late on Thursday the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said: “We will get our hands on the terrorists and their supportive environment, and they will pay the price.”

Witnesses told Agence France-Presse that two assailants leapt from a car swinging axes at passersby. The injured included two people being treated for serious wounds, health officials said.

“The joy of Independence Day was cut short in an instant,” the Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, posted on Twitter. “A murderous attack in Elad that shocks the heart and soul. We will not give in to terror.”

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the attack. The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, quoted him as saying: “The killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians will only lead to more deterioration of the situation.”

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, tweeted that the US “vehemently condemn[s] the terrorist attack in Israel today”.

Details on how the violence unfolded remained unclear but several Israeli media reports said the assailants carried knives or an axe, while other reports suggested they used firearms.

Paramedic Alon Rizkan, a first responder, described it as a “complex scene” and identified all the dead as men in their early 40s.

The majority of Elad’s 50,000 residents are members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, hundreds of whom gathered in the attack area amid medical personnel and police.

The worst wave of terrorist attacks in Israel in years began in late March, when an Islamic State supporter killed four people in a stabbing and vehicle-ramming incident in the southern city of Beersheba.

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Tensions then rose throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover. Several separate attacks in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank carried out by Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel claiming to be from different factions have killed 16 Israelis, including an Arab-Israeli police officer and two Ukrainian nationals.

Three Arab-Israelis and 27 Palestinians have died during the same period, among them the perpetrators of attacks and others killed by Israeli security forces in stepped-up army operations in the occupied West Bank.

The deadly violence has been accompanied by clashes throughout Ramadan at the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israeli police, in which hundreds of Palestinians have been injured. The site, known as the Temple Mount in Israel, is holy to both Jews and Muslims, and lies at the geographical and religious heart of the decades-old conflict.

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The compound’s reopening to Jewish visitors on Thursday morning, after the Eid al-Fitr holiday, was again marked by clashes; after Israeli police moved to arrest one of the Palestinians protesting against the Jewish presence, scuffles broke out in which police fired rubber-coated bullets and Palestinians responded by throwing stones. Two Palestinians were taken to hospital and one police officer was lightly wounded, medics said.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, praised Thursday’s attack in Elad but did not claim responsibility for it.

“The storming of al-Aqsa mosque can’t go unpunished,” Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said. “The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance had warned against.”

The escalation of violence in the past six weeks has raised fears of another armed conflict similar to the 11-day war a year ago between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which was in part triggered by unrest at Aqsa.

Informally, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray at the site. In recent years, however, growing numbers of Jewish visitors, sometimes praying or with police escorts, have inflamed longstanding Palestinian fears that Israel plans to annex the area.

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

With Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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