JERUSALEM (AP) — A pair of stabbing and shooting attacks carried out by Palestinians killed five people Thursday — three Israelis, a Palestinian and an American — in one of the deadliest days yet in a two month-long outburst of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The attacks are part of wave of violence that erupted in mid-September over tensions surrounding a Jerusalem holy site sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Palestinians accuse Israel of plotting to take over the hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims at the Noble Sanctuary — something Israel vehemently denies.
The Palestinians say the violence is rooted in frustration at decades of living under Israeli occupation. Israel accuses Palestinian leaders of inciting the unrest.
The violence was initially confined to Jerusalem and gradually spread deeper into Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In Thursday’s first attack, a knife-wielding man stabbed and killed two Israelis as several of them gathered for afternoon prayers on the second floor of an office building in the Israeli commercial center of Tel Aviv. Shimon Vaknin, a witness, told reporters he saw a bloodied man stumble into the room where he prayed with companions.
“He was all slashed and bloody. We were in shock,” Vaknin said. “We didn’t know what happened and then someone near the door shouted: ‘there’s a terrorist.'”
He described a dramatic standoff, with worshippers standing against the closed shop door as the assailant tried to force his way in. Israeli media showed footage of a blood-spattered floor littered with plastic gloves.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the attacker was apprehended by onlookers. She identified him as Raed Khalil bin Mahmoud, a 36-year-old Palestinian father of five from the West Bank village of Dura, near the West Bank city of Hebron, a frequent flashpoint for violence.
Hours later, a Palestinian motorist opened fire on a line of cars stuck in traffic in Gush Etzion, an area south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.
The Israeli military said he then intentionally rammed his vehicle into a group of pedestrians. The military said soldiers shot at the attacker, “identifying a hit,” although the attacker’s condition and identity was not known.
That attack killed three people, including an 18-year-old American and an Israeli. Among the dead was a Palestinian man, but police said it was not clear if he was hit by the attacker’s fire or that of Israeli forces.
U.S. State Dept. spokesman Edgar Vasquez confirmed the American’s death but did not disclose his identity. “We extend our condolences to his family and friends. Out of respect for the privacy of the family, we have no further details to share,” he said.
Since the violence broke out, Israel has sent troops to back up thousands of police patrolling cities, set up checkpoints in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, and outlawed an Islamic group accused of inciting to violence. But it has struggled to contain the seemingly spontaneous attacks.
Thursday’s Tel Aviv attack, inside an expansive office building in the middle of the day, in particular stoked Israeli fears that a full-fledged Palestinian uprising could erupt. Attacks inside Israel have grown rare in recent weeks even as violence continued to roil the West Bank.
Palestinian attacks have claimed the lives of 17 Israelis in total since the flare-up began. At least 84 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, 52 of them said by Israel to be attackers, the remainder killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A Palestinian died from his wounds Thursday after clashing with Israeli troops last week.
Previous deadly days have seen eight Palestinians killed, mainly in clashes with Israeli troops on the Gaza border. In another day of violence last month, three Israelis and three Palestinians, including two said by Israel to have been attackers, were killed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he and security officials discussed ways to contain attackers emanating from Hebron, which has become the focal point for violence in recent weeks, as well as steps against Israelis who hire Palestinians illegally. Israel grants thousands of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, while thousands of others enter illegally.
The violence has Israelis on edge. Several politicians have urged licensed gun owners to carry their weapons and there have been several bloody accidents.
In one case, an Israeli man stabbed a fellow Jew, thinking his victim was an Arab because of his dark skin, and a security guard shot an Eritrean migrant he thought was an attacker during a bus station shooting last month.
Shortly after the Tel Aviv attack, Mayor Ron Huldai called for Israelis to remain calm. “This thing is part of the routine of our lives,” Huldai told Israeli Channel 2 TV.
Also on Thursday, Israeli Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai and Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs Hussen al-Sheikh signed an agreement granting Palestinian mobile carriers 3G high-speed data services in the West Bank.
Under interim peace agreements, Israel controls cellular networks in the West Bank. Israeli cellular carriers transmit 3G, but Palestinian networks have been confined to the slower 2G networks. The agreement will not enable 4G service for Palestinians, nor will it cover the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, Israeli police said a Jerusalem court sentenced a police officer to six weeks of community service for beating a Palestinian-American teenager during a violent protest in July 2014. The officer was sentenced Wednesday.
Fifteen-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir, of Tampa, Florida, was beaten at an east Jerusalem protest following the murder of his cousin. Israeli extremists burned 16-year-old Mohammed alive in revenge for the killings of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
Abu Khdeir’s attorney Mohammad Mahmoud said Thursday the ruling delivered an “extremely light” punishment that “gives (police) a free hand.”
Associated Press writer Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.