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Jan 21, 11:18 AM EST

11 wounded by Palestinian in Israeli bus attack in Tel Aviv


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TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- A knife-wielding Palestinian stabbed 11 morning commuters on and near a bus Wednesday, striking in the heart of Tel Aviv and reigniting fears of continued violence ahead of Israeli elections in March.

The attack was the latest in a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis over recent months, which has been largely reserved to Jerusalem but also has spilled over to the West Bank and Tel Aviv.

Tuesday's stabbing took place near a busy intersection during morning rush hour. Police identified the attacker as Hamza Mohammed Matrouk, 23, from the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Police said Matrouk confessed to the attack, saying this summer's Gaza war, tensions surrounding a Jerusalem site holy to Jews and Muslims and extremist Islamic videos promising him an "arrival to heaven" fueled the violence.

Gaza's ruling Hamas praised the attack, calling it "brave and heroic," but did not claim responsibility. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Palestinian incitement for the ongoing bloodshed.

Police and witnesses said Matrouk was riding on the bus when he began stabbing passengers and the driver. He fled the bus but was chased down and shot by prison service officers nearby. They shot Matrouk in the leg and arrested him.

The bus driver, Herzl Biton, was stabbed in the upper body and liver and underwent surgery, his niece Cheli Shushan said. Witnesses said Biton used pepper spray to deter the attacker and slammed on the brakes to jar him. After being stabbed, Biton flung open the doors to allow passengers to flee.

At the scene of the attack, a Jewish head covering lay beside headphones on the floor of the bus, with blood splattered nearby.

Video aired by Israeli television station Channel 10 showed Matrouk running down the street and stabbing a woman in the back as he tried to escape.

The violence comes weeks ahead of March 17 elections, in which Netanyahu, a security hawk, is facing a challenge from a joint list headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who support negotiations with the Palestinians. The continued violence could sway votes in Netanyahu's favor.

The attack sparked heated rhetoric ahead of the polls, with Herzog blaming Netanyahu for a "strong lack of personal security" among Israelis.

"The reality is very clear. There is no sense of personal security. Not in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem which is divided by concrete barricades and not (in the communities) near Gaza. This is a real problem and the citizens of Israel will need to make a decision," he told Israel Radio.

The stabbing appeared to be the latest in a series of "lone-wolf" Palestinian attacks that have plagued Israel in recent months, killing about a dozen people, including five people killed with guns and meat cleavers in a bloody assault on a Jerusalem synagogue. Police have said the attacks are almost impossible to prevent.

In Jerusalem, the violence came after months of tensions between Jews and Palestinians in east Jerusalem - the section of the city the Palestinians demand as their future capital. The area saw a wave of violence last summer, capped by a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.

Much of the recent unrest has stemmed from tensions surrounding a key holy site in Jerusalem's Old City. It is the holiest site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount because of the revered Jewish Temples that stood there in biblical times. Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary, and it is their third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, condemned the violence but said it came as a result of the Israeli occupation.

"You cannot have a violent military occupation with full impunity and then expect all its victims to be calm and quiet," she said.

Netanyahu has blamed the attacks on incitement by the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders.

"The terrorist attack in Tel Aviv is the direct result of the poisonous incitement being disseminated by the Palestinian Authority against the Jews and their state," he said. "This same terrorism is trying to attack us in Paris, Brussels and everywhere."

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Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Karin Laub in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

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