The Palestinian terrorists who carried out a deadly knife and axe attack in Elad Thursday night were transported from the West Bank barrier to the Israeli city by one of their three victims, security officials said Friday, as the pair remained at large despite a massive manhunt for them.
Oren Ben Yiftah, a 35-year-old driver from Lod, drove As’ad Yousef As’ad al-Rifa’i, 19, and Subhi Emad Subhi Abu Shqeir, 20, from the West Bank security barrier, where they are believed to have sneaked into Israel, to Elad, the officials said.
Upon arriving, according to a statement from a security agency on condition of anonymity, the two attacked Ben Yiftah, killing him. From there, they headed up Ibn Gvirol street where they killed Elad residents Yonatan Havakuk and Boaz Gol. All three victims were fathers in their 30s or 40s who left behind a combined 16 children.
The two are thought to have fled in a car and police believe they are still inside Israel.
The revelation that Ben Yiftah is suspected of aiding the two was barred from publication by police until Friday evening, for unclear reasons. Many other details of the investigation remain under a court-imposed gag order.
According to Hebrew-language media reports, Ben Yiftah did not know the pair were in Israel illegally. He had transported them at least 10 times in the past to work in the ultra-Orthodox city, and was unaware of their attack plans.
On Saturday, Channel 12 news reported that the two killers telephoned Ben Yiftah on Thursday and told him they needed a ride to Elad for work. They said they were doing urgent renovations at the synagogue on Yehuda Hanassi Street in Elad. When they got very near to the synagogue, they attacked him with an axe and a knife, the report said. He fought back, but they overcame him and killed him.
Though technically illegal, a number of Israeli drivers work transporting Palestinian day laborers who sneak in from the West Bank to job sites around the country.
Authorities believe al-Rifa’i and Abu Shqeir had worked in Elad before and were familiar with the area.
The suspects had no history of terror activity or affiliation with terror groups, Army Radio reported.
Breaches in the West Bank security barrier used by workers have been utilized by terrorists responsible for a number of attacks inside Israel in recent weeks, leading to vows from defense officials that the gaps will be repaired and the wall better guarded. Several of the attackers have originated in the northern West Bank, leading the army to concentrate efforts near there.
On Friday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered law enforcement to begin a nationwide operation against Palestinians who illegally enter Israel from the West Bank, and those who assist them.
Several Palestinians in the country illegally were arrested Friday, police said. Also detained was the father of Abu Shqeir, also named Emad Subhi Abu Shqeir, who was apprehended by Israeli officers while working inside Israel, the Palestinian Prisoners Information Office reported.
The arrests came as police and military deployed widely across Israel and the West Bank to find the two terror suspects, both from the village Rumana outside Jenin in the northern West Bank.
“We will get our hands on the terrorists and their supportive environment, and they will pay the price,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said after huddling with senior security officials late Thursday.
Authorities said the attackers fled in a vehicle, but have concentrated their search around Elad, apparently believing that the two did not cross back into the West Bank.
“Our working assumption is that they are in the Elad area, so there are hundreds of security forces personnel who are there and searching,” Israel Police central district commander Avi Bitton said.
Elad, a town of some 50,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox residents east of Tel Aviv, sits three kilometers (two miles) from the Green Line dividing Israel and the West Bank.
Police were also searching for the two in the nearby city of Rosh Ha’ayin, the city said in a statement.
“Security forces and police are deployed throughout the city,” read a message from the municipality.
Searches were taking place in Rantis, a Palestinian town just on the other side of the West Bank security barrier, and in industrial zones in the area, where the two could be hiding in warehouses or factory emptied of people for the weekend, Haaretz reported.
Al-Rifa’i’s father told Palestinian media that he last saw his son two days ago and had not heard from him since.
“All I know is that my son went to go work with his friend Subhi in Ramallah. That’s it, nothing more,” Yousef al-Rifa’i said. “No one has told us anything — not the Jews, not the Palestinian Authority.”
He said his son worked in construction in Israel and occasionally helped out with Abu Shqeir’s electrical business.
In the wake of the attack, Israeli security officials extended until Sunday the closure of the West Bank and Gaza — which was put in place on Tuesday afternoon, ahead of Memorial Day and Independence Day, and had been supposed to end overnight Thursday-Friday.
Thursday’s attack followed a wave of terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent weeks, and repeated threats by Palestinian terror groups over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
According to eyewitnesses, the two terrorists attacked several people with an axe and a knife on Thursday evening at a central park and a nearby road in the largely ultra-Orthodox city.
The three fatalities brought the number of people killed in terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank since March 22 this year, to 19. They were buried Friday morning in separate funerals that all left from the spot of the attack.
“He had a heart of gold, he only did good things and wanted to help others,” Lior Ben Yiftah told Ynet of his twin brother Oren.
He said he had seen his brother only hours before the attack as they celebrated Independence Day together at a barbecue.
In addition to the three fatalities, another seven people were injured. Hospital officials said late Friday that two victims who had been listed in critical condition were no longer in life-threatening danger.
In an attempt to crack down on the spiraling violence, the army has stepped up its West Bank activities with raids sparking clashes that have left at least 26 Palestinians dead. Many of those took part in the clashes, while others appeared to have been civilians.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.