Britain has appealed for calm as tensions in Israel reach a tipping point, with fears it may spread to a broader conflict after two separate attacks in Tel Aviv on Friday killed three people and left seven injured.
The UK Foreign Office has called for a de-escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute after two British–Israeli sisters were shot dead in their car in the first attack and then an Italian tourist was killed in a later car-ramming incident.
“The UK calls for all parties across the region to de-escalate tensions”, a Foreign Office spokesperson said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was calling up all reserve forces in Israel’s border police, a paramilitary force usually deployed to suppress Palestinian unrest, “to confront the terror attacks.”
But officials say they are hoping to avoid a repeat of the 10-day war between Israel and Hamas seen in 2021.
“Nobody wants an escalation right now,” an Israeli army spokesman said. “Quiet will be answered with quiet, at this stage I think, at least in the coming hours.”
One official with a Palestinian militant group indicated they were ready to keep the calm should Israel do the same, with the group having “made its point”. A Qatari official said Qatar was helping international efforts to de-escalate the situation.
Since the beginning of the year, at least 18 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in attacks in Israel, around Jerusalem and in the West Bank. In the same period, Israeli forces have killed more than 80 Palestinians – though it says most were militants.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had urged “all parties across the region to de-escalate tensions” after Israel launched strikes overnight Thursday in southern Lebanon and bombed targets in the Gaza Strip in retaliation over rocket attacks.
The sisters killed in Friday’s attack, one thought to be in her 20s and the other around 16, were shot in their car near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Israeli medics said they dragged the girls’ 45-year-old mother, who was unconscious, from the smashed car and she was airlifted to hospital.
The girls’ father is said to have witnessed the incident from a separate car, local officials said.
Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat where the family lived, said: “With great sorrow we received an update on a shocking terrorist attack in which terrorists shot a car including a mother and her two daughters, residents of Efrat.
“The two girls were murdered and the mother is in (a) critical condition and we all pray for her quick recovery.
“The father of the family who drove in another car from the front turned around and witnessed the efforts to take care of his wife and daughters.”
A 36-year-old Italian tourist, identified by Italy’s foreign minister as Alessandro Parini, was killed in a separate incident on Friday when a car rammed into a group of tourists near a popular seaside park.
At least seven people were injured in the attack, including a 74-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl who are receiving medical treatment for their injuries.
Police said they shot and killed the driver of the car, identified as a 45-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel from the village of Kafr Qassem.
A video circulating on social media showed the car hurtling along a pavement for several hundred metres before crashing out of control.
The attacks, as Jews are celebrating Passover, Muslims are marking Ramadan and Christians are celebrating Easter, have heightened fears the violence could spiral into a wider conflict.
Netanyahu said additional border police would be activated on Sunday and join other units that have recently been deployed in Jerusalem and Lod, a town in central Israel with a mixed Jewish and Palestinian population.
In Jerusalem, violence flared again at the Al-Aqsa Mosque before dawn prayers, with Israeli police stationed at one of the gates forcibly dispersing vast crowds of worshippers who chanted praise for Hamas.
No groups have claimed responsibility for either of Friday’s attacks but the Hamas militant group, which rules Gaza, praised both incidents as retaliation for Israeli raids earlier this week on the Al-Aqsa mosque – the third-holiest site in Islam.
Twice this week Israeli police have raided the mosque, where hundreds of thousands of worshippers have been praying during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, to dislodge groups they said had barricaded themselves with the aim of causing trouble.
It sparked unrest in the contested capital and outrage across the Arab world, with militants firing a large rocket barrage at Israel from southern Lebanon on Thursday.
The Israeli military said it responded with airstrikes on Lebanon targeting Hamas militant sites.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said both sides in the Israel-Palestine dispute should “recommit themselves to a negotiated settlement” after the attacks.
But the Government has been urged to “step up” efforts to help bring peace to the Middle East as tensions soar.
Alicia Kearns, the Tory MP who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need to step up.
“We have a historical duty to contribute to peace in the region, but led by Jordan and Egypt. Jordan and Egypt are trying, they are bringing together the two sides… but they are saying they want Western support, they want UK support, we need the UK to step up.”
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said: “I am shocked by reports of the killing of two British sisters in an appalling and cowardly attack in the West Bank.
“My thoughts are with their family and loved ones. More civilian victims of this cycle of violence show the urgent need for diplomatic efforts to de-escalate.”
Kristyan Benedict, from human rights campaign group Amnesty International UK, said: “James Cleverly’s belated response to shocking Israeli violence against Palestinians at Al-Aqsa Mosque isn’t just weak and tokenistic – it’s also dangerously misguided because it effectively isolates individual incidents of violence from the overall context, which is decades of apartheid, occupation and systematic injustice against the Palestinian people.
“Despite the Foreign Secretary’s usual platitudes about ‘peace’ and ‘de-escalation’, the UK continues to oppose vital international measures such as the ongoing ICC (International Criminal Court) investigation, designed to bring justice and accountability for Israeli and Palestinian civilians.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Saturday: “Israel has the right to defend itself. At the same time, any response must be proportionate. The EU calls for an immediate end to the ongoing violence. Everything must be done to prevent the conflict from spreading.
“We urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint, to avoid further escalation and promote calm for the ongoing religious holidays.”