World | Middle East

November 18, 2014

Four Killed in Jerusalem Synagogue Complex

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, the Israeli police said, killing four men in the middle of their morning prayers.
Israeli police at the scene of an attack at a synagogue complex in West Jerusalem on Tuesday morning

Israeli police at the scene of an attack at a synagogue complex in West Jerusalem on Tuesday morning

The police killed the assailants in a gun battle at the scene that left one officer critically wounded. It was the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in more than three years, and the worst in Jerusalem since 2008. Witnesses and Israeli leaders said the site and the fact that the victims were slain while wearing prayer garments were reminiscent of long-ago pogroms.

“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 ritual straps and prayer shawls worn by the worshipers. “It was a massacre of Jews at prayer.”

The 7 a.m. attack on a synagogue complex that is at 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 soaring 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.

The four victims were all rabbis, one 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 described as being motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau that contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly asserted that he will not alter the status quo at the site, where non-Muslims can visit but not openly pray, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has called on his people 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 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.”

Mr. Netanyahu called Tuesday’s attack “the direct result of the incitement” led by Mr. 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.”

Secretary of State John Kerry of the United States called the attack “a pure result of incitement.”

“The Palestinian leadership must condemn this,” Mr. Kerry said in London, after speaking by telephone to Mr. Netanyahu, “and 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.”

Mr. Abbas responded to Mr. 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 worshipers at the synagogue in Jerusalem and condemn acts of violence no matter their source.”

But other Palestinian leaders praised the attack as a response to what they see as a threat to the holy site, and to the recent death of a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem. Relatives and friends of the driver, Yousef al-Ramouni, who was found hanged in his bus Sunday night, insisted he had been lynched by Jews, though the Israeli police said an autopsy on Monday ruled that his death was a suicide.

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.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine took credit for the attack, though Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said the authorities were still investigating whether the assailants were affiliated with any group.

“We’re also looking to see why they targeted this synagogue, were they familiar with this neighborhood,” Mr. Rosenfeld told reporters in a conference call, though he declined to confirm news reports that one of the suspects worked in a nearby grocery store. “They came in from the local areas, took advantage of that they had work purposes to roam freely around Jerusalem.”

Within two hours of the attack, scores of Israeli security forces had stormed Jabel Mukaber, the Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem where the suspects lived, spraying tear gas at their family home and into hills of olive trees.

Relatives said the younger assailant’s parents, three sisters and a brother were arrested, along with 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. We raise our heads high.”

Witnesses at the synagogue complex where the assault took place said the attackers were wearing jeans and T-shirts, and no masks, and shouted “God is great” in Arabic as they burst inside.

In addition to Rabbi Twersky — a son of Isadore Twersky, a Harvard scholar known as the Tolner Rebbe of Boston who died in 1997, and a grandson of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the Orthodox philosopher and teacher who died in 1993 — those killed, according to the police and local news organizations, were Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68, a British-born father of six; Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky, 43; and Rabbi Kalman Levine, 55. Like Rabbi Twersky, Rabbi Kopinsky and Rabbi Levine, were both American immigrants to Israel.

At least a dozen worshipers were injured, several of them seriously, in the attack on Kehilat Bnei Torah, a complex that houses several prayer groups and a large community hall on a quiet street in Har Nof. Several residents said the building was a center of life for Jews of Eastern European descent, with the hall serving as a popular spot 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,” Mr. Pasternak said. “Immediately after, someone enters with a knife, a butcher-type knife, and also goes on a rampage in all directions.” Mr. Pasternak said he had hidden under a chair.

Rabbi Shmuel Pinchas said his 13-year-old grandson had done the same. “He crouched under a chair, blood spattered on him from the person who sat in front of him, he fainted,” Rabbi Pinchas said. “People were in the middle of prayer and people could not respond. There is nowhere to hide as the synagogue is closed on all sides.”

Joyce Morel, a doctor who lives in Har Nof, said she had treated a man at the scene who was hit in the back with an ax and also shot, and the police officer, who was shot in the head. Another man had slipped on blood and fallen down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg.

“Everybody in the neighborhood is in a state of shock,” Dr. Morel said. “My son-in-law prays there regularly, his father prays there, my grandchildren are there frequently, my husband studies across the street from there every single day. It’s really a center for the community.”

Avi Nefoussi, a volunteer medic who lives a few blocks from the synagogue, said he arrived before the shooting stopped. He said he had helped evacuate some of the injured on stretchers, “then, unfortunately, we saw some bodies lying on the floor.”

One face looked familiar. It was a man in his 40s who Mr. Nefoussi “knew personally, very well,” though he declined to identify him pending notification of his family.

The man, like the others, was wearing the traditional fringed tallit used in prayer, as a wedding canopy, and sometimes as a funeral shroud. Mr. Nefoussi said he had covered the body with it before leaving.

 

Text by The New York Times
 

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