JERUSALEM (AFP) – Two Palestinians armed with a gun and axes burst into a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday and killed four Israelis before being shot dead in the bloodiest attack in the city in years. It was a rare attack on a place of worship and sent shockwaves through the country.
It came as months of unrest gripped the city’s annexed Arab eastern sector which has resulted in a string of deadly attacks by lone Palestinians.
But none was as serious as Tuesday’s assault on the synagogue in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood on the city’s western outskirts as worshippers gathered for the morning prayers.
Six other people were wounded, among them two policemen, before the two assailants were shot dead, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said, identifying them as Palestinians from east Jerusalem.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas condemned the killings, but the Islamist group Hamas, which dominates Gaza, welcomed them, describing them as a fitting “response” to Israeli actions in annexed east Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to gather security chiefs later to mull a tough response, said the attack was the result of “incitement” both Abbas and Hamas. Netanyahu regularly blames both Abbas and Hamas for attacks on Israelis regardless of whether they condemn or welcome it.
The attack began shortly before 7am (0500 GMT) as worshippers were attending prayers at a synagogue in a yeshiva (Jewish seminary) in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood.
Witnesses spoke of a bloodbath.
“There were people running from the synagogue, and a man sitting on the pavement covered in blood, it looked like he has been stabbed,” said local resident Sarah Abrahams, who was walking past when it happened.
“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.”
Fighting back tears, Moshe Eliezer said he had narrowly avoided being at the scene after oversleeping.
“This is a yeshiva community. Ninety per cent don’t serve in the army. We’re not violent,” he said.
Police said six people were wounded, among them two policemen who had engaged in a gunbattle with the assailants.
They said the attackers were two cousins from the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabal Mukaber.
Speaking to journalists at the scene, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat expressed shock at the scale of the bloodshed.
“To slaughter innocent people while they pray… it’s insane,” he said.
The prime minister pointed the finger at both Abbas and Hamas over the attack.
“This is the direct result of incitement by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas), incitement that the international community ignores in an irresponsible manner,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
He has repeatedly accused Abbas of encouraging deadly attacks after the Palestinian leader called for people to take action following tensions at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews, which Israel often denies Palestinians to visit depending on its interpretation of whether the atmosphere is safe.
Months of tensions at the shrine appeared to have abated late last week following talks in Amman between Netanyahu, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Kerry condemned Tuesday’s attack on the synagogue as an “act of pure terror and senseless brutality,” and called on the Palestinian leadership to denounce it.
“This violence has no place anywhere particularly after the discussion that we had just the other day in Amman,” he said.
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 clashes and rioting which has shown no sign of letting up.
But Hamas, which praised the synagogue assault, said it was a response to the death earlier this week of a Palestinian bus driver from east Jerusalem who was found hanged inside his vehicle.
“The operation in Jerusalem is a response to the murder of the martyr Yusuf Ramuni and to the series of crimes by the occupier at Al-Aqsa,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
“Hamas calls for more operations like it.”
Police said there was no evidence of foul play in the driver’s death, which it said was suicide, a finding supported by the post-mortem.
But colleagues and family said there were signs of violence on his body, claiming he was murdered.
And 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.