Israeli police arrest two Palestinians over Independence Day attack

An Israeli officer cordons off a forest area near the central city of Elad where the two Palestinians were arrested (Gil Cohen-Magen - AFP)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  May 8, 2022

Pair suspected of killing three Israelis caught outside town of Elad after massive manhunt.

Two Palestinians believed to have killed three people in a terrorist attack on Israel’s Independence Day – the latest incident in the worst wave of attacks in Israel in years – have been apprehended by police after a three-day manhunt.

The suspects, identified as As’ad Yousef As’ad al-Rifa’i, 19, Subhi Emad Subhi Abu Shqeir, 20, both from the occupied West Bank village of Rumana, were caught near a quarry outside the town of Elad in central Israel on Sunday, according to a statement by Israel’s police, military and internal security agency.

A massive search to locate the pair had been under way since Thursday night, when two attackers armed with an axe and knife stabbed people during independence day celebrations in Elad, an ultra-Orthdox town.

Israeli media identified those killed as Yonatan Havakuk, Boaz Gol and Oren Ben Yiftah, fathers in their 30s and 40s who together are survived by 16 children. Four more people were injured.

Ben Yiftah, a driver, was hired to pick up the assailants near a breach in Israel’s West Bank security fence without knowing they had crossed the barrier illegally, Israeli officials said last week. On arrival in Elad, they killed him before moving on to target passersby.

The perpetrators then fled the scene, sparking a huge search operation involving special forces, commando units, drones and helicopters, before they surrendered to masked soldiers in a rugged patch of land outside the town early on Sunday.

A spate of deadly street attacks targeting Israelis, accompanied by violent clashes at al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police, have sent tensions soaring in recent weeks.

Eighteen Israelis, including an Arab-Israeli police officer and two Ukrainian nationals, have been killed in five separate incidents. Three Arab-Israelis and 27 Palestinians have died during the same period, among them an unarmed woman and two apparent bystanders as well as the perpetrators of attacks. The Palestinian casualties were mostly killed by Israeli security forces in stepped-up army operations in the occupied West Bank.

The recent escalation 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 Al-Aqsa, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.

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

The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, told his cabinet on Sunday that the country was entering a “new stage in the war on terror” and said Israel was establishing a civilian national guard that would be deployed in emergency situations like the kinds of attacks the country has witnessed in recent weeks.

“The Israeli government’s main goal is to restore personal security to Israeli citizens,” he said.

Bennett will also convene his security cabinet this week to discuss Israel’s options in responding to the latest incident and incitement from Hamas.

All of the recent attacks on Israeli soil appear to have been committed by individuals or small groups acting without coordination from larger organizations. Hamas leaders praised Thursday’s events in Elad, but did not claim responsibility.

The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday that officials were considering restricting the entry of Gazan workers into Israel and mending the hundreds of holes in the West Bank separation barrier that thousands of Palestinians use to access illegal work in Israel.

Aware of the economic pressures facing Palestinian society, and benefiting from the cheap labour, Israel had until recently been turning a blind eye to the illegal crossings from the West Bank.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian