JERUSALEM — Two Palestinians stormed a Jerusalem synagogue on Nov. 18, attacking worshippers with meat cleavers and a gun during morning prayers and killing four people before they were killed in a shootout with police, officials said.
The attack, the deadliest in Jerusalem in years, is bound to ratchet up fears of sustained violence in the city, already on edge amid soaring tensions over a contested holy site.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel will “respond harshly,” describing the attack 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.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, the first time he has done so since a recent spike in deadly violence against Israelis. 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 the holy site and a halt to “incitement” by Israeli government ministers.
Israeli police called the incident a terrorist attack and said the two Palestinian assailants were cousins from east Jerusalem.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small militant group, said the cousins were among its members. A PFLP statement did not specify whether the group instructed the cousins to carry out the attack.
Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that runs the Gaza Strip, praised the attack. In Gaza, dozens took to the streets to celebrate the attack.
Some people held trays full of sweets and distributed them to drivers and passersby. In the southern town of Rafah, women and schoolchildren waved green Hamas flags and a loudspeaker praised the attack.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said six people were also wounded in the attack, including two police officers. Four of the wounded were reported in serious condition.
The attack occurred in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, an ultra-Orthodox community on the western edge of the city far from other recent scenes of violence. The area was surrounded by police and rescue workers following the attack.
Associated Press footage showed wounded worshippers being assisted by paramedics, and a bloodied meat cleaver lay nearby. Initially, police had described the weapons used as knives and axes.
“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,” 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.
Yosef Posternak, who was at the synagogue at the time of the attack, told Israel Radio that about 25 worshippers were inside when the attackers entered.
“I saw people lying on the floor, blood everywhere. People were trying to fight with (the attackers) but they didn’t have much of a chance,” he said.
Footage released by the Israeli government showed blood-soaked prayer books and prayer shawls on the floor of the synagogue. A pair of glasses lay under a table, from which blood was dripping. A set of phylacteries hung off the table. A photo in Israeli media showed a body on the floor, covered with a prayer shawl.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the attackers were Palestinians 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 converged. Residents hurled stones at police who responded using riot dispersal weapons.
Residents in the neighborhood, speaking on condition of anonymity for fears for their own safety, said 14 members of the Abu Jamal family were arrested.
Mohammed Zahaikeh, a social activist in Jabal Mukaber, said one of the relatives of the cousins, Jamal Abu Jamal, was released in a 2011 prisoner swap and re-arrested recently by Israeli police. He did not say why.
Israel has been on edge with a spate of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis, killing at least six people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Tel Aviv in recent weeks, prior to the casualties.
Jerusalem residents had already been fearful of what appeared to be lone wolf attacks using cars or knives against pedestrians, but the synagogue assault harkens back to gruesome attacks during the Palestinian uprising of the last decade.
Israel’s police chief said the 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 who 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, Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman. The meeting was an attempt to restore calm after months of violent confrontations surrounding a sacred shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Israel and the Palestinians said then they would take steps to reduce tensions that might lead to an escalation.
In his statement, Netanyahu blamed the violence on incitement by both Hamas and Abbas and said the international community ignores the incitement.
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.”
“Innocent people who had come to worship died in the sanctuary of a synagogue. They were hatcheted, hacked and murdered in that holy place in an act of pure terror and senseless brutality and murder,” Kerry said.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking alongside Kerry, also condemned the violence.
Hamas’ statement praised the synagogue attack, saying it was a “response to continued Israeli crimes, the killing, desecrating al-Aqsa (mosque),” a reference to a recent incident at the holy site.
Abbas, at a meeting later with security officials, called for calm.
“We call for a complete calm and a halt to all these attacks to enable us to move ahead with our political work,” he said, according to the Palestinian official Wafa news agency.
Much of the recent violence stems from tensions surrounding the Jerusalem holy site 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, a move seen as a provocation.
By Tia Goldenberg. AP writers Mohammed Daraghmeh and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Matthew Lee in London contributed to this report