By Luke Baker and Jad Sleiman
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday revoked permits for 83,000 Palestinians to visit Israel and said it would send hundreds more troops to the occupied West Bank after a Palestinian gun attack that killed four Israelis in Tel Aviv.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault by two gunmen on Wednesday in a trendy shopping and dining market near Israel’s Defence Ministry, but Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups were quick to praise it.
The assailants came from near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They dressed in suits and ties and posed as customers at a restaurant, ordering a drink and a chocolate brownie before pulling out automatic weapons and opening fire, sending diners fleeing in panic.
Two women and two men were killed and six others were wounded. The attack followed a lull in recent weeks after what had been near-daily stabbings and shootings on Israeli streets. It was the deadliest single incident since an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014 that killed five.
The Tel Aviv gunmen, cousins in their 20s who, security experts said, appeared to have entered Israel without permits, were quickly apprehended. One of them was shot and wounded.
The other, in a bizarre twist, was picked up inside the nearby apartment of an off-duty police officer who initially mistook the attacker for an innocent bystander fleeing the scene, the police said.
“It is clear that they spent time planning and training and choosing their target,” Barak Ben-Zur, former head of research at Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency, told reporters.
“They got some support, although we don’t know for sure who their supporters are,” he said, adding that they appeared to have used improvised automatic weapons smuggled into Israel.
The attack, as families were enjoying a warm evening out at the tree-lined Sarona market, took place a few hundred yards from the imposing Defence Ministry in the center of Tel Aviv, a city that has seen far less violence than Jerusalem.
After consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the military said it was rescinding some 83,000 permits issued to Palestinians from the West Bank to visit relatives in Israel during the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
U.N., EU CONDEMNATION
At an emergency meeting, Israel’s security cabinet discussed punitive measures against attackers, including destroying their homes more quickly, and efforts to bolster the number of security guards in public places, an official said.
The army announced that two battalions would be deployed in the West Bank to reinforce troops stationed in the area, where the military maintains a network of checkpoints and often carries out raids to arrest suspected militants. Israeli battalions are comprised of around 300 troops.
Such measures, including restrictions on access to Jerusalem’s Aqsa Mosque compound, the holy site in the heart of the Old City that Jews refer to as Temple Mount, have in the past lead to increased tensions with the Palestinians.
After the attack, fireworks were set off in parts of the West Bank and in some refugee camps people sang, chanted and waved flags in celebration, locals said.
Hamas spokesman Hussam Badran called it “the first prophecy of Ramadan” and said the location of the attack, close to the Defence Ministry, “indicated the failure of all measures by the occupation” to end the uprising.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement saying he rejected “all operations that target civilians regardless of the source and their justification”.
During the past eight months of violence, Israel’s government has repeatedly criticized Palestinian factions for inciting attacks or not doing enough to quell them.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the largest group in the Palestine Liberation Organization after Abbas’s Fatah, described the killings as “a natural response to field executions conducted by the Zionist occupation”.
The group called it a challenge to Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new defense minister, who must decide how to respond to the violence, possibly with tighter security across the West Bank.
Lieberman said that Israel would start holding onto the bodies of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks, rather than returning them to their families for burial, according to his spokesman. It was unclear how long that measure would last.
The United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, condemned the shootings and expressed alarm at the failure of Palestinian groups to speak out against the violence. The European Union did the same.
Netanyahu visited the scene minutes after arriving back from a two-day visit to Moscow. He described the attacks as “cold-blooded murder” and vowed retaliation.
“We will locate anyone who cooperated with this attack and we will act firmly and intelligently to fight terrorism,” Netanyahu said.
(Writing by Luke Baker, additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Dominic Evans and Robin Pomeroy)