Israel carried out a manhunt on Friday for two Palestinians suspected of killing three Israelis and seriously injuring two others in Elad, a city in central Israel, the previous night.
Israeli authorities named Asad al-Rafani, 19, and Subhi Abu Shakir, 20, as the suspects in the attack. Both are from Rumana, a village near Jenin in the northern occupied West Bank, and were reportedly in Israel without permits.
A dozen Palestinians were killed by Israeli occupation forces in the Jenin area over the past several weeks.
Israeli movement restrictions and violence in that area escalated after Raed Hazem, from Jenin refugee camp, shot and killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv on 7 April.
Hazem was killed in what Israel claimed was a shootout with police hours after carrying out the attack.
On Friday, the Israeli military issued an order to demolish the apartment belonging to Hazem’s family.
Such punitive home demolitions – which Israel carries out against the families of Palestinians it says carried out attacks on Israelis, but never against Jews who attack Palestinians – are a form of collective punishment forbidden under international law.
The three Israelis slain in Elad on Thursday were identified as Yonatan Havakuk, Boaz Gol and Oren Ben Yiftach, all reportedly aged between 35-40. Four others were injured, two of them seriously.
The two alleged assailants used an ax and possibly a knife to carry out their attacks in an amphitheater park and on the city’s main street, witnesses told police.
One of the slain Israelis, Ben Yiftach, had transported the suspected assailants from Israel’s wall in the West Bank to Elad, where the pair reportedly worked illegally.
“He had transported them at least 10 times in the past to work in the ultra-Orthodox city, and was unaware of their attack plans,” The Times of Israel reported.
The incident in Elad is the seventh such fatal attack on people in Israel and Israelis in the West Bank since late March, leaving 19 dead.
The Elad attack, which occurred on Israel’s “Independence Day,” came days after Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, urged Palestinians to take up arms against Israel to defend al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
“Our people should take a gun, a knife or a hatchet,” Sinwar said. “If they want a religious war, they’ve crossed the lines.”
Last month, Israeli police attacked Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque while it was filled with worshippers on the second Friday of Ramadan, injuring more than 150 people, six of them seriously, and arresting more than 400.
On Saturday, Sinwar warned that the “big battle” over the holy site would begin after Ramadan, which ended that day, “because the Zionists have a number of dates when they will try to breach the mosque.”
The al-Aqsa mosque compound was closed to non-Muslims during the last 10 days of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday that followed.
Hundreds of Israelis, urged by Jewish nationalist organizations to come out in large numbers, visited the mosque compound under heavy police escort on Thursday, prompting confrontations between Palestinians and police at the holy site, according to Israeli media.
“The Jewish groups say they plan to wave the Israeli flag and sing Israel’s national anthem at the holy site in celebration of Independence Day,” The Times of Israel reported on Wednesday.
Photos and videos show people carrying Israeli flags and singing the Israeli national anthem at the al-Aqsa mosque plaza on Thursday while Palestinians were harassed by police:Additional videos show Israeli police shooting crowd control weapons at Palestinians detained at the prayer hall of al-Aqsa on Thursday after they were locked inside by occupation forces to allow the visit by Jewish nationalists: The Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian minister nominally responsible for the holy site said Thurday’s visit by hundreds of nationalist Israelis undermined attempts to maintain calm at al-Aqsa, where only Muslims are permitted to worship under the tenuous status quo.
There is historical precedent for the violent upending of the status quo at a major Palestinian holy site.
After an American-born Jewish settler massacred 29 worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque in 1994, Israeli forces partitioned the holy site and shuttered the formerly bustling adjacent Old City.
Palestinians fear that without determined resistance, Israel will seize any opportunity to impose similar measures at al-Aqsa.
A video report published by the Quds News Network on Thursday shows a large menorah and Israeli flags flying atop and draped down the walls of the Ibrahimi mosque:Tensions around al-Aqsa have escalated over the past month with multiple police attacks on Ramadan worshippers. During the Passover holiday in April, Jewish extremist groups attempted to perform animal sacrifices at the mosque compound.
This week, Hamas and Islamic Jihad accused Israeli police of disconnecting the speaker that broadcasts the call to prayer from al-Aqsa mosque on Tuesday night “so as not to interfere with the Israeli Memorial Day opening ceremony at the adjacent Western Wall plaza,” the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported.
Israeli police denied that the speakers were disconnected “and posted a rare warning against fake news on social media,” Haaretz added.
Hamas warned Israel that allowing Jewish visitors to enter the al-Aqsa mosque compound on Thursday would be “playing with fire” and would drag “the region into an escalation for which the occupation will bear full responsibility.”
Meanwhile on Friday, Israel announced that it would “advance nearly 4,000 housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank next week,” Haaretz reported.
The construction plans include more than 350 new apartments in Dolev, a Jerusalem-area settlement where Israeli high court judge David Mintz, who was born in the UK, resides.
On Wednesday, a court ruling issued by Mintz approved the forced expulsion of more than 1,000 Palestinians from eight villages in the Masafer Yatta area in the southern West Bank.
If Israel carries through with the forcible transfer, it will be one of the single largest expulsions of Palestinians since it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.