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Israel Captures 2 Palestinians Suspected in Deadly Ax Attack

JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces captured two Palestinians on Sunday who were suspected of perpetrating an ax attack that killed three Israeli Jews in the central town of Elad on Thursday night. Their arrests ended an intensive search but left Israel’s fragile government grappling with how to combat the recent surge in terrorist attacks.

The detentions calmed immediate fears that the assailants could come out of hiding and strike again, but Israel remained on high alert for possible copycat attacks. An Israeli police officer was stabbed and wounded outside Jerusalem’s contested Old City on Sunday night by a Palestinian, according to the police.

The killings in Elad on Thursday followed Arab assaults that have caused deaths in four other cities across Israel since late March.

“Capturing the murderers is not enough,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel said Sunday at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting, adding, “We are at the start of a new stage in the war on terrorism.”

The search, involving hundreds of soldiers and police officers as well as helicopters and drones, had closed in on an area near a quarry, less than a mile from Elad.

To find the suspects, investigators identified DNA found on paper currency that the two men had handled and then matched those traces with a blood trail one of them had left, according to a military official who briefed reporters about the investigation on the condition of anonymity, in line with Israeli Army rules.

As the security forces closed in, officers spotted a bush that was moving up and down in a breathing motion, the military official said, and the suspects were flushed out.

Tensions in Israel have risen in recent weeks amid clashes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at Al Aqsa Mosque compound, a Jerusalem holy site also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.

Palestinians have protested an apparent shift in Israeli policy that has seen Jewish visitors praying quietly in the courtyards of the mosque as police officers have looked on, despite a decades-long understanding that non-Muslims could visit but not worship there. The Israeli authorities have denied any change in the longstanding arrangement.

Palestinian protesters at the mosque compound have tried to prevent visits by Israeli Jews during the hours set for non-Muslim visitors and tourists, and have thrown stones and shot fireworks at the Israeli security forces stationed at the edges of the compound.

The police response — including with sponge-covered bullets, sound grenades, tear gas and arrests — has stoked anger among Palestinians who regard any Israeli police action at the mosque, a potent national and religious symbol, as an affront.

Mr. Bennett and other Israeli officials have blamed Palestinian incitement, including on social media, for much of the violence of the past several weeks.

As tensions have worsened, Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has urged Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel to attack Israelis. Days before the assault in Elad, Yehya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, warned that any further raids by the Israeli police in the mosque compound would prompt a response. In a fiery speech, he urged members of Israel’s Arab minority to “get your cleavers, axes or knives ready.”

Hamas did not claim responsibility for last week’s killings in Elad but hailed them as “heroic.”

In all, 19 people have been killed in Arab attacks since March 20.

Israel has responded with a series of arrest raids in the occupied West Bank, and nearly 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to local news reports, most of them involved in attacks or confrontations with Israeli forces.

But Israeli commentators have been critical of the government, calling for tougher action against Hamas in Gaza. Several mainstream opinion writers called on Israel to assassinate Mr. Sinwar, prompting Hamas leaders to warn that any such action would lead to a resumption of the suicide bombings that plagued Israel in the early 2000s.

A senior Israeli defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate issue, said that assassinating Mr. Sinwar would not be in Israel’s interest because it would reflect only “lust for revenge” and could ignite a broader conflict.

Since an 11-day air war a year ago with militants who launched rockets from Gaza, Israel has been trying to keep the peace by offering economic inducements for the Palestinian coastal enclave’s people, including allowing 12,000 residents to work in Israel on a daily basis. The Israeli authorities had been considering raising that number to 20,000.

Hamas, for its part, has been working hard to prevent militants from firing rockets into Israel in recent months, according to the Israeli defense official, in an effort to keep Gaza out of the cycle of violence even as it has tried to ignite Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Some Israeli analysts have called for the cancellation of work permits for Gazans.

“Foiling terrorist attacks and chasing perpetrators will not do the job,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

“We need to deal with the climate of encouraging terrorists, so when Sinwar calls on Palestinians to take butchers’ knives and kill Israelis,” Mr. Yaari said, referring to the Hamas figure, “we have to respond by suspending measures intended to alleviate the economic conditions in Gaza.”

However, a Palestinian backlash could lead to a military escalation that might further destabilize Mr. Bennett’s politically diverse coalition, which includes a small Islamist party. The coalition has already lost its razor-thin majority in Parliament. The opposition could try to topple the government with a preliminary vote to dissolve Parliament as early as this week, when lawmakers return from recess.

As an immediate measure, Mr. Bennett said that he planned to establish a civilian national guard to improve security in Israel’s cities. And the police announced a crackdown on Palestinian workers from the West Bank who enter Israel without the required permit, as well as on those Israelis who transport them, employ them and provide them with lodging.

Israeli officials said that one of the victims of Thursday’s ax attack in Elad, Oren Ben-Yiftah, 35, a deliveryman, had given the attackers a ride to the town from the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Mr. Ben-Yiftah, a father of six from Lod, Israel, apparently believed that the pair were going to work in Elad.

After arriving in the town, the assailants killed Mr. Ben-Yiftah in his car then ran into a park, where they terrorized families who were celebrating Israel’s Independence Day. There they killed Boaz Gol, 49, and Yonatan Havakuk, 44, residents of Elad who each had five children, and wounded several other men.

Ronen Bergman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.

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