A bloodied butcher's cleaver, bodies covered in prayer shawls and overturned prayer tables. This was the grim scene at a synagogue in Har Nof, west Jerusalem, on Tuesday morning following a brutal attack by two Palestinian men that killed four Jewish worshippers and seriously injured eight more.
At around 7am, the assailants, identified by local media as cousins Uday and Rassan Abu Jamal, stormed into Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue during morning prayers and shouted "Allahu Akbar" before opening fire and going on a rampage with knives, eyewitnesses and survivors said.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, one of the victims was a British citizen and the other three were US citizens, including 59-year-old Moshe Twersky, a well-known rabbi in Jerusalem from a celebrated Hasidic dynasty. The FBI have reportedly opened an investigation into the murders of the three US passport holders, CNN reported.
Both attackers, believed to be from a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem, Jabel Mukaber, were shot dead by police at the scene.
In a public address Tuesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the family homes of the terrorists to be bulldozed. "I have decided we will destroy the houses of those that attacked the synagogue," he said.
Earlier in the day Finance Minister Yair Lepid, had also called for the attackers' houses to be knocked down. "We should demolish them as soon as today," he told Ynet, an Israeli news website.
Following the kidnap-murder of three Jewish teens by Palestinian militants in West Bank in July Israel reinvoked the controversial policy — abolished at the end of the second intifada in 2005 — of destroying the family homes of suspects and perpetrators of terror attacks. Several other Palestinian homes in West Bank connected with a recent spate of violence are scheduled for destruction, the Israeli military said on Monday.
Today's attack, in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood described by locals as "quiet," will further ratchet up tensions in the holy city, which has seen a month of mounting sectarian tensions and tit-for-tat violence.
In response to the rampage, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch announced on public radio that gun control laws on carrying weapons for self-defense would be eased immediately. "In the coming hours, I will ease restrictions on carrying weapons," he told the public broadcaster.
By Tuesday afternoon, a crackdown by Israeli police was already underway in response to the latest attack. Roads leading to neighborhood where the synagogue killers lived were blocked with concrete slabs as armed police searched assailants' family homes and reportedly arrested eleven relatives of Uday and Rassan Abu Jamal.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the deaths on both Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who he accuses of inciting violence. "We will respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were killed by lowly murderers," he said in a statement.
Abbas meanwhile publicly condemned "the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer."
The armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which considers both the Hamas government in Gaza and Abbas' Fatah-led government in West Bank to be illegitimate, celebrated the synagogue attackers as martyrs but stopped just short of a claim of responsibility. In a statement the PFLP — branded a terrorist organization by the US and European Union — described the killers as "fellow comrades" and called their actions a "natural response to the crimes perpetrated by Israeli occupation."
Hamas did not claim responsibility for the killings either, but also heaped praise on the "heroic act" of the assailants and described it as "revenge" for the death of a 32-year-old Palestinian bus driver, Youssef al-Ramouni, who was found hanged in mysterious circumstances in Jerusalem on Sunday night.
On Monday Israeli police and postmortem conducted in Tel Aviv ruled out foul play in al-Ramouni's death but a Palestinian doctor present at the autopsy said the circumstances surrounding the hanging were suspicious. The bus driver's family has claimed he did not commit suicide and was murdered.
On Tuesday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called for "the continuation of revenge operations." He also stressed the group's position that "the Israeli occupation bears responsibility for tension in Jerusalem."
Tuesday's attack on the synagogue — the worst in Jerusalem since 2008, when a Palestinian gunman shot dead eight people in a religious seminary school — is another bloody crescendo in a month of violence in the holy city, where clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police have become a near daily occurrence.
A spate of stabbings and vehicle-based terror attacks has killed five Israelis and one foreigner in the past four weeks. Around a dozen Palestinians, including the perpetrators of the attacks, have also been killed.
Israel's police spokesperson, Micky Rosenfeld, has said that Palestinian leaders and media are responsible for inciting what he called a series of "lone wolf" attacks on Israeli citizens.
The latest surge in violence has been fueled by the revival of the ancient dispute over Jerusalem's holiest shrine, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount, giving rise to fears of a renewed religious conflict.
Speaking on Tuesday during a visit to London, US Secretary of State John Kerry described the attack as "pure terror... [that] simply has no place in human behavior."
"Palestinians attacked Jews who were praying in a synagogue. People who came to worship God in the sanctuary of a synagogue were hatcheted, hacked and murdered in a holy place," he said.
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