Four worshipers at a Jerusalem synagogue were killed and six were wounded Tuesday when two Palestinians armed with meat cleavers and a gun stormed the building and began attacking people before they were killed in a shootout with police.
The attack in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood in the western part of Jerusalem, was the deadliest in Israel’s capital since 2008, when a Palestinian gunman shot eight people in a religious seminary school.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel will “respond harshly” to the attack, which he denounced as a “cruel murder of Jews who came to pray and were killed by despicable murderers.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he spoke to Netanyahu after the assault and denounced it as an “act of pure terror and senseless brutality and violence.”
Kerry blamed the attack on Palestinian calls for “days of rage,” and said Palestinian leaders must take serious steps to refrain from such incitement. He also urged Palestinian leaders to condemn the attack “in the most powerful terms.”
Hours after Kerry spoke, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, the first time he has done so since a recent spike in deadly violence against Israelis began. He also called for an end to Israeli “provocations” surrounding the sacred site.
In a statement, Abbas’ office said he “condemns the killing of the worshippers in a synagogue in west Jerusalem.” The statement called for an end to the “invasion” of the mosque at a contested holy site in the city and a halt to “incitement” by Israeli ministers.
Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the attackers were cousins from east Jerusalem, which has been the scene of relentless clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in recent months. She identified the assailants as Ghassan and Oday Abu Jamal from the Jabal Mukaber neighborhood.
Soon after the attack, clashes broke out outside the Abu Jamals’ home where dozens of police had gathered to carry out arrests in connection with the attack. Residents hurled stones at police who responded using riot dispersal weapons.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant group, said the cousins were its members. A PFLP statement did not specify whether the group instructed the cousins to carry out the attack.
Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, praised the attack as retaliation for what it claimed was the murder of a Palestinian bus driver who was found hanged in his vehicle late Sunday. Israeli police, citing autopsy results, have classified the man’s death as a suicide, but that has not been accepted by the man’s family.
Associated Press footage from the scene showed the synagogue surrounded by police and rescue workers following the attack. Wounded worshippers were being assisted by paramedics and a bloodied meat cleaver lay near the scene of the attack. Initially, police had described the weapons used as knives and axes.
The Times of Israel cited witnesses who said the two men shouted “Allahu Akbar” during the attack and entered the synagogue without their faces covered.
“I tried to escape. The man with the knife approached me. There was a chair and table between us … my prayer shawl got caught. I left it there and escaped,” a man who identified himself as Yossi, who was praying at the synagogue at the time of the attack, told Israeli Channel 2 TV. He declined to give his last name.
Another witness, identified only as Zohar described panic at the scene.
“I heard shooting and one of the worshipers came out covered in blood and shouted ‘There’s a massacre,'” he told The Times of Israel.
Jerusalem has seen a spate of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis, most of which have involved cars being driven into pedestrians. At least six people had been killed in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Tel Aviv prior to Tuesday.
Jerusalem residents have already been fearful of what appeared to be lone wolf attacks, but Tuesday’s early morning attack on a synagogue harkens back to the gruesome attacks during the Palestinian uprising of the last decade.
Israel’s police chief said Tuesday’s attack was likely not organized by militant groups, similar to other recent incidents, making it more difficult for security forces to prevent the violence.
“These are individuals that decide to do horrible acts. It’s very hard to know ahead of time about every such incident,” Yohanan Danino told reporters at the scene.
Tensions appeared to have been somewhat defused last week following a meeting between Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Jordan. The meeting was an attempt to restore calm after months of violent confrontations, with Israel and the Palestinians saying they would take steps to reduce tensions that might lead to an escalation.
The Jerusalem holy site is referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount because of the Jewish temples that stood there in biblical times. It is the most sacred place in Judaism; Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary, and it is their third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from going there, instead praying at the adjacent Western Wall. Israel’s chief rabbis have urged people not to ascend to the area, but in recent years, a small but growing number of Jews, including ultranationalist lawmakers, have begun regularly visiting the site.