By Luke Baker
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday revoked permits for more than 80,000 Palestinians to visit Israel during the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan after a Palestinian shooting attack that killed four Israelis in Tel Aviv.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault by two Palestinian gunmen on Wednesday in a trendy restaurant complex 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 an upmarket restaurant before pulling out automatic weapons and opening fire, sending diners fleeing in panic.
Both were apprehended, with one wounded in the incident, which followed a lull in recent weeks after what had been near-daily Palestinian stabbings and shootings on Israeli streets.
The attack, as families were enjoying a balmy evening out at the open-air Sarona complex, was the deadliest in the country’s business and entertainment capital since a wave of Palestinian violence erupted in October 2015.
After security consultations overseen by 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 Ramadan.
Such measures, including restrictions on access to the 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 tension with the Palestinians.
After the Tel Aviv attack, in which police said four Israelis – two men and two women – were killed and six were wounded, fireworks were set off in parts of the West Bank. In some refugee camps people sang, chanted and waved flags.
It was not a response to the breaking of the Ramadan fast in the evening, locals said, but a celebration of the killings, carried out by cousins from Yatta, a village near Hebron.
Hamas spokesman Hussam Badran called it “the first prophecy of Ramadan” and said the location of the attack, across the road from Israel’s fortified Defense Ministry, “indicated the failure of all measures by the occupation” to end the uprising.
During the recent wave of violence, Israel’s government has repeatedly criticised 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 Fatah, the Western-backed party of President Mahmoud Abbas, described the killings as “a natural response to field executions conducted by the Zionist occupation.”
The group called it a challenge to far-right nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s newly appointed defense minister, who must decide how to respond to the violence, possibly with tighter security across the West Bank.
The United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, condemned the shootings, which also wounded six people, and expressed alarm at the failure of Palestinian groups to speak out against the violence.
“All must reject violence and say no to terror,” he said in a tersely worded statement. “I am shocked to see Hamas welcome the terror attack. Leaders must stand against violence and the incitement that fuels it, not condone it.”
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 held a consultation about a series of offensive and defensive measures that we will implement,” he said. “We will locate anyone who cooperated with this attack and we will act firmly and intelligently to fight terrorism.”
One of the first steps taken was to shut down the area around Yatta and suspend 204 work permits held by relatives of the attackers.
Since October last year, 32 Israelis and two visiting U.S. citizens have been killed by Palestinians. Israeli forces have shot dead at least 196 Palestinians, 134 of whom Israel has said were assailants. Others were killed in clashes and protests.
(Writing by Luke Baker; Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Dominic Evans)