JERUSALEM — The Orthodox Jewish men were facing east, to honor the Old City site where the ancient temples once stood, when two Palestinians armed with a gun, knives, and axes burst into their synagogue Tuesday morning, shouting “God is great!” in Arabic. Within moments, three rabbis and a fourth pious man lay dead, blood pooling on their prayer shawls and holy books.
The assailants, cousins from East Jerusalem, were killed at the scene in a gun battle with the police that injured two officers; one died of his wounds Tuesday night. Politicians and others around the world condemned the attack and the rising religious dimension of the spate of violence, which has been attributed mainly to a struggle over the very site the victims were praying toward.
“The murderers for today’s outrageous acts represent the kind of extremism that threatens to bring all of the Middle East into the kind of spiral from which it’s very difficult to emerge,” President Obama said from the White House. “But we have to remind ourselves that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis overwhelmingly want peace and to be able to raise their families knowing they’re safe and secure.”
The 7 a.m. invasion of a synagogue complex that is the heart of community life in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof, in West Jerusalem, was the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in more than three years and the worst in the city since 2008, when eight students were slain at a yeshiva. It brought to 11 the number of Israelis — including a baby, a soldier, and a border police officer — killed in the past month.
In the same period, Israeli security forces killed a Palestinian citizen of Israel who had approached their car with a knife, setting off days of rioting; shot dead two drivers who plowed their cars into pedestrians in Jerusalem; and killed a suspect in an attempted assassination of an agitator for Jewish prayer at the holy site that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims the Noble Sanctuary.
Witnesses to Tuesday’s attack said the assault started at the height of the morning service, during the silent Amidah, or standing, prayer.
“I saw a Jew lying wounded and bloodied in his tefilin and tallit,” said Yaakov Amos, 45, referring to the leather straps and prayer shawls the Orthodox don daily.
Speaking of one of the assailants, Amos said: “He began to carry out a massacre. He was shouting ‘God is great,’ and shooting one after another, one, two, three. Most were praying with their back to him.”
Unlike the other recent terror attacks, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority issued a statement Tuesday saying, “We condemn the killings of worshippers at the synagogue in Jerusalem, and condemn acts of violence no matter their source.” The same statement, published by Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, called for a halt “to incitement against Aqsa,” one of two shrines at the holy site.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who earlier blamed Abbas for the attack, said Tuesday night that “it is a good thing” he condemned it, “but this is not enough,” and he reiterated that he had no plans to change the status quo at the site, which prohibits non-Muslim prayer.
“Hamas, the Islamic movement, and the Palestinian Authority have been spreading endless fabrications against the state of Israel,” he said at a news conference. “They have been saying that the Jews have defiled the Temple Mount. They say that we plan to destroy the holy sites and change the prayer arrangements. These are all lies.”
Three of the four worshippers killed Tuesday were dual citizens of Israel and the United States, including Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, 59, part of a rabbinic dynasty in Boston; the fourth was an immigrant from Britain.
The FBI planned to join Israeli authorities in investigating the attacks to see whether any organizations or individuals assisted and could be prosecuted.
The slain officer was identified as Zidan Saif, 30, a resident of a Druze village in northern Israel who had a 4-month-old son.
Relatives of the attackers, Odai Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32, said the cousins were motivated by what they saw as threats of Jewish takeover of Al-Aqsa and the recent death of a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem.
The driver, Yousef al-Ramouni, was found hanged in his bus Sunday night; Israeli authorities say he committed suicide, but his family insists that he was lynched by Jews.
Chen Kugel, head of Israel’s forensic institute, said Tuesday that the autopsy found only evidence consistent with suicide, and that a Palestinian pathologist who attended concurred. But Ma’an, an independent Palestinian news agency, reported that the Palestinian doctor questioned the conclusion, stoking calls for revenge.
“I salute Odai and Ghassan for this heroic act,” said their cousin Huda Abu Jamal, 46. “Every Palestinian should strike. Our conditions are too bad. These men have no jobs. Al-Aqsa is in danger. The settlers brutally hanged Yousef. We raise our heads high.”
The Israeli authorities arrested 12 relatives of the assailants, family members said.
Local news organizations said neither man had previously been arrested, though a cousin was among the 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released in a 2011 exchange for an Israeli soldier held captive for five years by Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates the Gaza Strip. That cousin was affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant group that celebrated Tuesday’s attack and claimed credit for it.
But Israeli authorities said it seemed the men had acted alone, like the other recent attackers. Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said investigators were looking at “why they targeted this synagogue, were they familiar with this neighborhood.”
The synagogue, Kehilat Bnei Torah, was part of a five-story domed complex that houses several prayer groups and a community hall popular for weddings, film screenings, and speeches. Neighbors said it was abuzz 24 hours a day, drawing many strains of ultra-Orthodoxy.
Dr. Joyce Morel, a physician who lives nearby, said she treated a man at the scene who was hit in the back with a cleaver and was also shot, as well as Saif, who was shot in the head. Another man slipped on blood and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg.
“Everybody in the neighborhood is in a state of shock,” Morel said. “It is the center of religious life, and life, for a large, large proportion of the people who live in the neighborhood. My son-in-law prays there regularly, my grandchildren are there frequently, my husband studies across the street from there every single day.”
Avi Nefoussi, a volunteer medic who lives nearby, also rushed to the scene.
After helping evacuate the injured, he realized he knew one of the dead, Aryeh Kupinsky, 43.
Like the others, Kupinsky was still wearing his prayer shawl. Nefoussi said he used it to cover the body before leaving.