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Shooter kills 2, wounds several in central Tel Aviv

A distraught woman on a street among emergency first-responders.
A woman reacts at the scene of a shooting attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)
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An attacker opened fire into a crowded bar in central Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, killing at least two people and wounding several others before fleeing into a dense residential area, Israeli officials said.

Police said there were “indications” it was a politically motivated attack, and it was the fourth deadly assault in Israel in less than three weeks at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack but did not claim responsibility.

Hours after the shooting, the gunman remained at large. Hundreds of police officers, canine units and army special forces soldiers were conducting a manhunt in central Tel Aviv, searching building by building through the heavily populated residential neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with top security officials and ordered reinforcements into the city. “Wherever the terrorist is — we’ll get to him. And everyone who helped him indirectly or directly — will pay a price,” he said in a statement.

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Amichai Eshed, the Tel Aviv police commander, said the shooter opened fire into the bar about 9 p.m. and then fled.

“Our working assumption is that he is still in the vicinity,” Eshed told reporters. “As of right now, there are indications pointing to this being a terrorist attack, but I have to be very delicate about this, and say that we are also checking other leads.”

The Magen David Adom emergency service said two men, each about 30 years old, were killed. Seven other people were wounded, three seriously, it said.

The shooting took place on Dizengoff Street, a central thoroughfare that has seen other attacks over the years. Most recently, an Arab Israeli citizen shot and killed two Israelis and wounded several others on the street in January 2016.

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 were fired.

Tensions have been high after a string of attacks by Palestinian assailants killed 11 people just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began last weekend. Last year, protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan ignited an 11-day Gaza war.

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 Gaza Strip.

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Before the attack, Israel had said it would allow women, children and men older than 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 Temple Mount. The site has long been a tinderbox 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 Middle East War. Palestinians want all three territories to form their future state. The last serious and substantive peace talks broke down more than a decade ago, and Bennett is opposed to Palestinian statehood.

Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized internationally, but Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital. It is building and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which most of the international community considers illegal.

Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but along with neighboring Egypt it imposed a crippling blockade on the territory after Hamas seized power from the rival Palestinian Authority two years later. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since.

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Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif 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 methodically gunned down people in the central town of Bnei Brak, killing five. Two days earlier, a shooting by two Islamic State sympathizers in the central city of Hadera killed two police officers. The week before, an Islamic State sympathizer 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 responsibility, though Hamas has welcomed the attacks.

Israel says the conflict stems from the Palestinians’ refusal to accept its existence 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.

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