JERUSALEM — A Palestinian construction worker commandeered a construction vehicle and rampaged through central Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon, killing three people in what police later described as the spontaneous act of a lone attacker.
Dozens were injured as the front-loader flattened cars and flipped a crowded bus before its driver was shot dead by an Israeli soldier on leave who scrambled onto the vehicle.
Though the attack evoked memories of the politically motivated suicide bombings that demoralized Jerusalem during the second Palestinian uprising, police said that the man appeared to have no ties to militant groups.
"This appears to have been a spontaneous attack," Israeli Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen said.
Three militant Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for Wednesday's rampage, but police officials dismissed all of them as groundless.
Police identified the driver as Hosam Dwayyat, a married, 30-year-old father of two who lived in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
Israel's Channel 2 reported that Dwayyat had served two years in prison for rape and attempted murder.
Wednesday's rampage was the first such deadly assault in Jerusalem since March, when a Palestinian gunman from East Jerusalem entered a prominent Jewish religious school and killed eight people before being shot dead.
The latest attack came during a period of relative calm marked by a tenuous, 13-day-old cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Israeli leaders are hoping that the quiet will pave the way for a breakthrough in Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas militants meant to secure release of Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier whom Gaza militants captured more than two years ago.
It also came as Israel is trying to broker a more substantial peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
While Wednesday's attack prompted calls for immediate retaliation, it might not have a significant impact on negotiations with Palestinian leaders if the driver acted alone and had no political motivation.
"Though this creates a very difficult atmosphere, I don't deny that, it does not have to be a direct threat to calm in the south," said one Israeli political official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the unfolding investigation.
Palestinian Authority negotiators condemned the attack, while Hamas leaders called it a natural response to Israel's repeated military raids in the West Bank.
The attack took place on Jaffa Road, one of Jerusalem's busiest streets, near the city's main open market. Shortly before noon, the driver lurched out of a construction site off Jaffa Road and began rolling over cars.
Ami Dayan, a resident from Kiryat Gat in southern Israel, emerged from an office building to see the front-loader heading for a line of public buses on Jaffa Street.
"It hit the first bus, then hit a second bus with the scoop with the people inside," Dayan said. "It turned it over and kept slamming into the bus over and over. Then it went on top of a car with a family inside."
The attack created confusion and pandemonium as people scrambled for safety.
Assaf Nadav, the driver of the bus that the front-loader flipped on its side, said he wasn't sure what was going on when he saw people running away from the construction vehicle as it headed toward him.
"He hit me lightly and I rolled down my window to ask him what he was doing when I saw him lower the scoop and turn the bus upside down," Nadav said on Israel Radio. "Screaming would be an understatement."
Two armed men and a police officer scrambled onto the vehicle, wrestled with the driver, then shot him, Israeli Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
The men thought the attack was over, but the driver then lurched forward in a scene captured by nearby cameramen.
In a video that aired on Israeli television, one person rolls out of the way of the Caterpillar as the three armed Israelis wrestle with the driver.
A man in shorts and a T-shirt, later identified in Israeli news reports as 18-year-old Moshe Plesser, shoots the driver twice in the head, who then slumps in the seat.
Plesser, an Israeli soldier who just finished basic training, said the man yelled "God is great" in Arabic before trying to continue with his rampage.
"He yelled Allahu Akbar and hit the gas," Plesser told Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
The police officer then fired a final shot in the back of the head of the now-lifeless driver.
"To our regret the attackers do not cease coming up with new ways to strike at the heart of the Jewish people here in Jerusalem," Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski said at the scene.
The attack created new challenges for Israel's government.
Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem usually have Jerusalem IDs that give them Israeli residency, but not full rights as citizens. The IDs allow them much greater freedom than Palestinians from the West Bank, who need permission to enter Jerusalem.
Dwayyat and the man who attacked the school in March both had Jerusalem IDs.
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)