JERUSALEM — Palestinian assailants carried out a series of stabbings across Israel on Wednesday, jolting an anxious country unnerved by weeks of unrest as clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian demonstrators raged across the West Bank.
The violence forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call off a high-profile visit to Germany and prompted him to tell the nation to be on “alert” for further trouble. And in another sign of the tensions, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, was seen carrying an assault rifle while visiting an Arab neighbourhood.
The unrest began three weeks ago and has spread from the confines of a sensitive Jerusalem holy site to spots across Israel and the West Bank. In Wednesday’s violence, stabbings occurred outside a crowded mall in central Israel, in a southern Israeli town and in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Israeli forces shot two of the attackers, killing one, while a third was arrested. No Israelis were seriously hurt. Another Palestinian was wounded when he was shot by police after he attempted to run over an officer at a West Bank checkpoint, police said.
Netanyahu has threatened a tough response to the violence, and Israel has beefed up security in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It also briefly barred non-resident Palestinians from entering the Old City, home to sensitive holy sites. That ban was lifted shortly before Wednesday’s stabbing.
In all, four Israelis have been killed in stabbings and a roadside shooting in recent days, while five Palestinians, including three attackers, have been killed.
With the attacks spilling into the Israeli heartland, Netanyahu warned Israelis to be on guard.
“Civilians are at the forefront of the war against terrorism and must also be on maximum alert,” Netanyahu said, after a meeting with top police officials.
Barkat, the Jerusalem mayor, defended his decision to carry a rifle while visiting an Arab neighbourhood in east Jerusalem on Monday night. His office said he was a former military officer and licensed to carry the weapon.
“Many terror attacks in Jerusalem have been prevented or neutralized due to the quick actions and response of responsible bystanders,” it said, noting that earlier this year, the mayor helped stop a knife-wielding Palestinian attacker.
Adnan Husseini, the top Palestinian official for Jerusalem, called Barkat’s armed appearance “a declaration of war” on Palestinian residents of the city.
“It’s incitement for other Israelis to do the same,” he said.
In the attack outside the mall, which occurred in the city of Petah Tikva, police said civilians apprehended the suspected Palestinian assailant after he stabbed and slightly wounded a man.
Earlier Wednesday, police said a 19-year-old Palestinian stabbed a soldier while taking his weapon in the southern town of Kiryat Gat. The suspect then fled into a residential building, where he followed a local woman into her apartment before police forces arrived and shot and killed him.
And in Jerusalem’s Old City, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman stabbed an Israeli man who then shot and wounded her.
The clashes erupted during the Jewish new year three weeks ago over tensions at the sacred hilltop compound in Jerusalem revered by Muslims as the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the site of the two Jewish biblical Temples.
Many Palestinians believe that Israel is trying to expand a Jewish presence at the site, a claim Israel adamantly denies. Under a longstanding arrangement administered by Islamic authorities, Jews are allowed to visit the site during certain hours but not pray there.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been hurt in several days of clashes, according to the Red Crescent medical service, including dozens struck by rubber bullets and some by live fire.
On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters in the West Bank hurled rocks at Israeli troops who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
At a protest near the West Bank city of Ramallah, masked plainclothes Israeli police were seen kicking and punching a Palestinian protester apparently suspected of throwing stones, as they detained him.
Also Wednesday, Netanyahu cancelled a planned trip to Germany for meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel so that he could stay in Israel to “closely monitor the situation,” according to his office.
The Israeli prime minister is under heavy pressure, particularly from hard-liners in his governing coalition, to respond to the surge in violence with a tough crackdown and increased settlement activity. But he is also wary of angering the American administration and risking another full-fledged uprising with too tough a response that could lead to a higher number of casualties on both sides.