Deadly Jerusalem synagogue attack sparks anger and praise

Members of the Israeli Zaka emergency response team clean blood from the scene of an attack at a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday. (Ammar Awad, Reuters)

Members of the Israeli Zaka emergency response team clean blood from the scene of an attack at a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday. (Ammar Awad, Reuters)

Two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers burst into a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday and killed four Israelis before being shot dead in the city’s bloodiest attack in years.

It was a rare assault on a place of worship and sent shock waves through the country, raising fears that the already deadly Israel-Palestinian conflict was taking on a dangerous religious dimension.

All four victims were Israelis with dual nationality – three were United States citizens and the fourth British, police said. Israel’s leading ultra-Orthodox website said all four were rabbis.

The bloodshed took place as months of unrest gripped Jerusalem’s annexed Arab eastern sector, resulting in a string of deadly attacks by lone Palestinians and further enflamed by the death of a Palestinian bus driver in controversial circumstances.

But none was as serious as Tuesday’s killings at the synagogue in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood on the city’s western outskirts as worshippers gathered for morning prayers. 

Four people were killed and eight wounded, including two police officers, medics said. One person was in a critical condition and three sustained serious injuries, with eyewitnesses saying several had had limbs hacked off.

Israel vows harsh response
The attack began shortly before 7am when the assailants burst in, waving meat cleavers and a gun at the synagogue in a Jewish seminary in Har Nof.

Three police officers – two traffic officers and a forensics expert – arrived and exchanged gunfire with the attackers, killing them, police spokesperson Luba Samri said.

Two police officers were wounded, one critically. 

The assailants were identified by family members as Uday and Ghassan Abu Jamal, cousins from the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabal Mukaber.
Both were in their 20s. 

Israel vowed a harsh response, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the bloodshed a “direct result” of incitement by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas, vowing to respond with “a heavy hand”.

Abbas condemned the killings, but Hamas welcomed the attack, describing it as a fitting “response” to Israeli actions in annexed east Jerusalem. 

Analysts warned of escalation in a situation already fraught with tension. 

“This event has the potential of being a game changer,” said Kobi Michael, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, adding it created a sense that things were “out of control”.

‘Death to terrorists’
Witnesses spoke of a bloodbath. 

“There were people running from the synagogue, and a man sitting on the pavement covered in blood,” said resident Sarah Abrahams.

“Two people came out with their faces half missing, looking like they’d been attacked with knives,” she said as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews pressed up against the police tape, a few chanting “Death to terrorists”. 

Emergency worker Moti Bukchi said the scene was “harrowing”.

“Inside the synagogue some were wounded by gunshots, others had chopped off limbs caused by a meat cleaver,” he said. 

“We have seen things here for the first time – a man goes in with a meat cleaver and starts to attack people and chop off their limbs. That is something new,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Speaking to journalists at the scene, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat expressed shock at the brutality of the attack which took place just over 1.5km from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

“To slaughter innocent people while they pray ... it’s insane,” he said.

Har Nof is also very close to the former Palestinian village of Deir Yassin where Jewish militias massacred more than 100 villagers in 1948.

A similar attack to Tuesday’s took place in March 2008 when a Palestinian gunman killed eight students and wounded 11 at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva just two kilometres away before being shot dead.

Shortly after Tuesday’s attack, police went to Jabal Mukaber and rounded up family members, sparking clashes with stone-throwing youths, relatives said.

Police arrested nine people but did not say how many were family members. 

East Jerusalem tinderbox
Arab east Jerusalem has been a tinderbox since early July when Jewish extremists killed a 16-year-old Palestinian in revenge for the murder of three Jewish teenagers, sparking a wave of violence which has shown no sign of letting up.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon vowed Israel would hunt down those who sent the perpetrators “wherever they are and in whatever way necessary, both inside and outside Israel’s borders”.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch pledged to ease controls on carrying weapons for self-defence in a move which would apply to anyone licensed to carry a gun, such as private security guards and off-duty army officers.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attack as an “act of pure terror and senseless brutality”, and called on the Palestinian leadership to denounce it.

But Hamas praised the assault and called for further attacks, saying it was a “response” to Sunday’s death of the Palestinian bus driver from east Jerusalem who was found hanged inside his vehicle.

Police said a post-mortem showed no evidence of foul play in the driver’s death, but colleagues said his body showed signs of violence, indicating he was murdered.

The Palestinian pathologist who attended the post-mortem also ruled out suicide, suggesting he may have been drugged then strangled, the family’s lawyer said. – AFP

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