Israeli officials said an attacker opened fire on Thursday evening in a crowded restaurant district in central Tel Aviv, killing at least two people and injuring several others.
Police said there were “signs” that it was a terrorist attack – the fourth deadliest attack in Israel in less than three weeks at a time of escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
The militant Hamas group, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack but did not claim responsibility.
Hours after the shooting, the suspected assailant fled. Hundreds of Israeli police officers, canine units, and army special forces were conducting massive searches in central Tel Aviv, building through densely populated residential areas.
Tel Aviv police commander Amichai Ished said the shooter opened fire at a crowded bar around 9 p.m. and then fled the scene.
“Our working assumption is that he is still in the vicinity,” he told reporters.
“At the moment, we are pointing out that this is a terrorist attack, but I have to be very sensitive about this, and have to say that we are looking for other clues as well.”
Israel’s Magan David Adom emergency service said it had received reports of shootings at “multiple scenes” around the city of Tel Aviv. It said two people aged about 30 years died. Another seven people were injured, of whom three are in critical condition.
At least one shootout occurred on the central main street, Dizengoff Street. Dizengoff Street has been the scene of several deadly attacks over the years. Most recently, an Arab citizen of Israel shot dead two Israelis in the street in January 2016 and injured several others.
The popular nightlife area was packed on Thursday evening, the start of the Israeli weekend.
His office said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was monitoring the situation from Israel’s military headquarters, which is also in the city of Tel Aviv.
Tensions have escalated after 11 people were killed in attacks by Palestinian bombers just before the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, which began nearly a week ago. Last year, protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan ignited the 11-day Gaza War.
Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders have held a flurry of meetings in recent weeks, and Israel has taken a series of steps aimed at quelling tensions, including issuing thousands of additional work permits to Palestinians from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip .
Before the attack, Israel said it would allow more than 40 women, children and men from the occupied West Bank to offer prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem on Friday, the first weekly prayer of Ramadan. Thousands were expected to attend it.
The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and is located on top of a hill that is the holiest site for Jews, who call it Temple Mount. The holy site has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel has in recent years worked to sidestep the Palestinian issue, instead focusing on building alliances with Arab states against Iran. But the age-old struggle remains as unshakable as ever.
Hamas spokesman Abdeltif al-Qanu said late Thursday that “the heroic attack in the heart of the (Israeli) unit has affected 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 systematically shot people in the central city of Bnei Brak, killing five. Two days earlier, two police officers were killed in an attack by Islamic State sympathizers in the central city of Hadera.
A week ago in the southern city of Beersheba, an IS sympathizer killed four people after ramming into a car and stabbing them. The Hadera and Beersheba attacks were carried out by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Recent attacks appear to have been carried out by attackers alone, perhaps with the help of allies. No Palestinian terrorist group has claimed them, although Hamas has welcomed the attacks.
Israel says the conflict stems from the Palestinians’ refusal to acknowledge its existence as a Jewish state and blames the attacks on provocation on social media. Palestinians say such attacks are the inevitable result of nearly 55 years of military occupation that shows no signs of ending.