JERUSALEM — Two Palestinians armed with a gun, knives and axes stormed a synagogue complex in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of West Jerusalem on Tuesday morning and killed four men in the middle of their morning prayers, the Israeli police said.
The assailants were killed at the scene in a gun battle with the police that wounded two officers, one of whom died of his injuries on Tuesday night. It was the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in more than three years, and the worst in Jerusalem since 2008. Witnesses and Israeli leaders were particularly horrified at the religious overtones of an attack on a synagogue that killed men in ritual garments and spilled blood on prayer books.
“To see Jews wearing tefillin and wrapped in the tallit lying in pools of blood, I wondered if I was imagining scenes from the Holocaust,” said Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the veteran leader of a religious emergency-response team, describing the straps and prayer shawls worn by the worshippers. “It was a massacre of Jews at prayer.”
The 7 a.m. attack on a synagogue complex that is the heart of community life in the Har Nof neighborhood shattered Israelis’ sense of security and further strained relations with Palestinians at a time of heightened tension and violence. Six people, including a baby, a soldier and a border police officer, have been killed in a spate of vehicular and knife attacks fueled in large part by a dispute over a holy site in the Old City known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Three of the four men killed in the synagogue Tuesday were rabbis, and all were immigrants to Israel with dual citizenship. One was born in England, and three in the United States, including Moshe Twersky, 59, part of a celebrated Hasidic dynasty.
Relatives identified the attackers as two cousins, Odai Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32. They were said to be motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau that contains Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly said he will not alter the status quo at the site, where non-Muslims are allowed to visit but not openly pray. Even so, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has called on Palestinians to protect the area and has warned of a “holy war” if it is “contaminated” by Jews.
“They carried out this operation because of the fire in their hearts — they were under pressures, pressures, pressures, and in one ripe moment, the explosion took place,” said a relative of the attackers who gave his name as Abu Salah, holding photographs of the men. “I say in full mouth, it is a religious war which Netanyahu has started,” he added. “It will end the way we like.”
Netanyahu called Tuesday’s attack “the direct result of the incitement” led by Abbas and Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction, and vowed to “respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were eliminated by despicable murderers.”
The prime minister ordered the demolition of the homes of the perpetrators of the recent assaults. According to a statement from his office, he also “directed that enforcement against those who incite toward terrorist attacks be significantly increased.” The statement referred to “the series of additional decisions that have been made to strengthen security throughout the country,” but it offered no specifics.
President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning the killings in the synagogue, saying “there is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians.”
“Too many Israelis have died; too many Palestinians have died,” Obama said later at the White House. “At this difficult time, I think it’s important for both Palestinians and Israelis to try to work together to lower tensions and reject violence.” He added: “We have to remind ourselves that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis overwhelmingly want peace.”
The U.N. special envoy for the Middle East, Robert H. Serry, also condemned the attacks. And U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Palestinian leaders to do the same.
“They must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people’s language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path,” Kerry said in London after speaking to Netanyahu by telephone.
Abbas responded to Kerry’s demand, offering his first denouncement of any Palestinian attack during the recent escalation.
“We condemn the killing of civilians from any side,” he said in a statement published by Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency. “We condemn the killings of worshippers at the synagogue in Jerusalem and condemn acts of violence no matter their source.”
But in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, there were celebrations after the attack, and other Palestinian leaders praised it as a response to what they see as a threat to the holy site, and to the recent hanging death of a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem. Relatives and friends of the driver, Yousef al-Ramouni, insisted that he was lynched by Jews, but the Israeli police said an autopsy Monday found that his death was a suicide.
In Gaza City, people fired celebratory gunshots in the air Tuesday, and praise for God and the attackers poured from mosque loudspeakers soon after the synagogue attack. Later, some people distributed sweets and paraded through the streets singing victory songs. Palestinian television ran photographs of similar outbursts of joy in Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central committee, said on Al-Jazeera early Tuesday that the attack on the synagogue complex was “a normal reaction to the Israeli oppression.”
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman, wrote in a Facebook post: “The new operation is heroic and a natural reaction to Zionist criminality against our people and our holy places. We have the full right to revenge for the blood of our martyrs in all possible means.”
A militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed responsibility for the attack. But Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said authorities were still investigating whether the assailants were affiliated with any group.
The attackers were Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who carry Israeli identification cards, can travel freely throughout Israel, and often work in Jewish neighborhoods.
“We’re also looking to see why they targeted this synagogue, were they familiar with this neighborhood,” Rosenfeld told reporters in a conference call.
Within two hours of the attack, scores of Israeli security forces had stormed Jabel Mukaber, the Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem where those believed to have been the assailants lived, spraying tear gas at their family home and into hills of olive trees.
Relatives said that police arrested the younger assailant’s parents, three sisters and a brother, and the wife, mother and five brothers of the older attacker, who had three children, ages 6, 5 and 3.
“I salute Odai and Ghassan for this heroic operation,” said a 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.”
Twersky was a son of Isadore Twersky, a Harvard scholar and renowned Boston rabbi who died in 1997, and a grandson of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, an Orthodox philosopher and teacher who died in 1993. According to the police, local news reports and the State Department, the other two Americans who were killed were Kalman Levine, 55, a rabbi originally from Kansas City, and Aryeh Kupinsky, 43. The Israeli Foreign Ministry initially said that Kupinsky, too, was a rabbi, but people who knew him said he was not. The fourth man who was killed was Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68, a British-born father of six.
At least a dozen other worshippers were injured, several of them seriously.
The synagogue complex, Kehilat Bnei Torah, houses several prayer groups and a large community hall on a quiet street. Several residents of the Har Nof neighborhood said the building was a center of life for Jews of Eastern European descent, and the hall was popular for weddings, film screenings and speeches.
Yossef Pasternak, who was praying at the synagogue, told Israel Radio he had heard gunshots at the height of the morning service.
“I turn around and I see a man with a pistol, who starts shooting point blank at people next to him,” Pasternak said. “Immediately after, someone enters with a knife, a butcher-type knife, and also goes on a rampage in all directions.” Pasternak said he hid under a chair.
Rabbi Shmuel Pinchas said his 13-year-old grandson did the same.
“Blood spattered on him from the person who sat in front of him,” the rabbi said. “He fainted.”
Joyce Morel, a doctor who lives in Har Nof, said she treated a man at the scene who was hit in the back with an ax and was also shot, as well as the police officer, 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.
Avi Nefoussi, a volunteer medic who lives a few blocks from the synagogue, said he arrived before the shooting stopped and helped evacuate some of the injured.
“Then, unfortunately, we saw some bodies lying on the floor,” he said. One face was familiar, he said: Kupinsky, whom Nefoussi said he “knew personally, very well.”
Like the others, he was wearing the traditional fringed tallit used in prayer, as a wedding canopy, and sometimes as a funeral shroud. Nefoussi said he covered the body with the tallit before leaving.