Elad (Israel) (AFP) -
Israel conducted a large-scale manhunt on Friday for two Palestinians suspected of killing three Israelis in an axe attack that came as the Jewish state marked its founding.
The attack on Thursday night in Elad, a central city mainly populated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, was the sixth in which Israelis have been targeted since March 22.
Witnesses said two assailants leapt from a car swinging axes at passers-by, leaving three dead and four wounded, before fleeing in the same vehicle.
The attack followed a tense period in which the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter overlapped.
The tensions have boiled over into violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a highly contested site in Jerusalem's Israeli-annexed Old City.
Palestinians have been angered by an uptick in Jewish visits to the Al-Aqsa compound, where by long-standing convention Jews may visit but are not allowed to pray.
Israel has said the status quo would remain unchanged at the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
The Elad attack was condemned by the United States and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who warned it could lead to spiralling violence.
But the Gaza Strip's Islamist rulers Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian armed group, praised the attack, calling it a consequence of unrest at Al-Aqsa. Neither claimed responsibility.
'This operation demonstrates our people's anger at the occupation's attacks on holy sites,' Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said of the Elad attack.
'The storming of the Al-Aqsa mosque cannot go unpunished.'
- 'Pay the price' -
Israeli security forces have mounted a massive search operation for the attackers, identified by the police as Assad Yussef al-Rifai, 19, and Subhi Imad Abu Shukair, 20.
As helicopters and drones roared overhead in search of the perpetrators, young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in crisp white shirts were seen linking arms and chanting near the scene of the attack.
Women gathered on balconies overlooking the site, as masked forensic officers packed the bodies of the dead into bags and police stopped and searched cars.
Yehuda, a 31-year-old IT worker, told AFP he was afraid that 'the killers have not yet been caught'.
'We suffer hatred and get murdered with an axe,' he said, as he attened the funeral of Oren Ben Yiftach, a 35-year-old from Lod who was killed in the attack.
Police asked the public to provide information on the suspects after publishing their pictures and names. They were described as residents of the village of Rummanah near Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz announced measures to stop them escaping.
The Israeli prime minister's office identified the three dead as Yonatan Habakuk, 44, and Boaz Gol, 49, both from Elad, as well as Ben Yiftah.
'We will get our hands on the terrorists... and ensure they pay the price,' Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
The majority of Elad's 50,000 residents are members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, known as haredim.
Gantz announced a closure of the West Bank -- in place for the anniversary -- would remain in force through Sunday.
- Spate of attacks -
Prior to Thursday's incident, a string of attacks since March 22 had killed 15 people, including an Arab-Israeli police officer and two Ukrainians, in separate attacks inside Israel.
Two of the deadly attacks were carried out in the Tel Aviv area by Palestinians.
A total of 27 Palestinians and three Israeli Arabs have died during the same period, among them perpetrators of attacks and those killed by Israeli security forces in West Bank operations.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said 'the joy of independence day had been interrupted in an instant'.
For Palestinians, the anniversary of Israel's 1948 declaration of independence marks the Nakba, or 'catastrophe', when more than 700,000 fled or were expelled during the war surrounding Israel's creation.
Last week, Hamas threatened Israel with rocket fire and attacks on synagogues if its security forces carry out further raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
'Whoever has a rifle must have it ready, and whoever does not have a rifle must prepare their knife or their axe,' said Yahya Sinwar, Hamas chief in the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave.
The latest violence on Thursday at Al-Aqsa came following a tense April, in which nearly 300 people were injured in clashes between police and Palestinians at the site.