The assailants were killed at the scene in a gun battle with police 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 were particularly horrified at the religious overtones of an attack on a synagogue that killed men in ritual garments and spilled blood on prayer books.
“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 straps and prayer shawls worn by the worshipers. “It was a massacre of Jews at prayer.”
The four men killed in the synagogue Tuesday were rabbis with dual Israeli citizenship. One was 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 said to be motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau that contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly said he will not alter the status quo at the site, where non-Muslims are allowed to visit but not openly pray. Even so, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has called on Palestinians 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 of the attackers 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.”
The prime minister ordered the demolition of the homes of the perpetrators of the recent assaults. According to a statement from his office, he also “directed that enforcement against those who incite toward terrorist attacks be significantly increased.” The statement referred to “the series of additional decisions that have been made to strengthen security throughout the country,” but it offered no specifics.
President Obama issued a statement condemning the killings in the synagogue, saying “there is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians.” He added, “At this sensitive moment in Jerusalem, it is all the more important for Israeli and Palestinian leaders and ordinary citizens to work cooperatively together to lower tensions, reject violence, and seek a path forward towards peace.”
The United Nations special envoy for the Middle East, Robert H. Serry, also condemned the attacks. And Secretary of State John Kerry called on Palestinian leaders to do the same. “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. Kerry said in London after speaking to Mr. Netanyahu by telephone.
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 in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, there were celebrations after the attack, and other Palestinian leaders praised it as a response to what they see as a threat to the holy site, and to the recent hanging death of a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem. Relatives and friends of the driver, Yousef al-Ramouni, insisted that he was lynched by Jews, but the Israeli police said an autopsy on Monday found that his death was a suicide.
In Gaza City, people fired celebratory gunshots in the air on Tuesday, and praise for God and the attackers poured from mosque loudspeakers soon after the synagogue attack. Later, some people distributed sweets and paraded through the streets singing victory songs. Palestinian television ran photographs of similar outbursts of joy in Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
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.”
A militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed responsibility for the attack. But Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said the authorities were still investigating whether the assailants were affiliated with any group.
The attackers were Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who carry Israeli identification cards, can travel freely throughout Israel, and often work in Jewish neighborhoods.
Within two hours of the attack, scores of Israeli security forces had stormed Jabel Mukaber, the Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem where those believed to have been the assailants lived, spraying tear gas at their family home and into hills of olive trees. Relatives said that the police arrested the younger assailant’s parents, three sisters and a brother, and 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.”
Rabbi Twersky was a son of Isadore Twersky, a Harvard scholar and renowned Boston rabbi who died in 1997, and a grandson of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, an Orthodox philosopher and teacher who died in 1993. According to the police, local news reports and the State Department, the other two American-born rabbis who were killed were Aryeh Kopinsky, 43, and Kalman Levine, 55; both had emigrated to Israel. The fourth rabbi was Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68, a British-born father of six.
At least a dozen other worshipers were injured, several of them seriously.
The synagogue complex, Kehilat Bnei Torah, houses several prayer groups and a large community hall on a quiet street. Several residents of the Har Nof neighborhood said the building was a center of life for Jews of Eastern European descent, and the hall was popular 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 hid under a chair.
Rabbi Shmuel Pinchas said his 13-year-old grandson did the same. “Blood spattered on him from the person who sat in front of him,” the rabbi said. “He fainted.”
Joyce Morel, a doctor who lives in Har Nof, said she treated a man at the scene who was hit in the back with an ax and was also shot, as well as the wounded police officer, who was shot in the head. Another man slipped on blood and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg.
Avi Nefoussi, a volunteer medic who lives a few blocks from the synagogue, said he arrived before the shooting stopped, and helped evacuate some of the injured. “Then, unfortunately, we saw some bodies lying on the floor,” he said. One face was familiar, he said: Rabbi Kopinsky, who Mr. Nefoussi said he “knew personally, very well.”
Like the others, the rabbi was wearing the traditional fringed tallit used in prayer, as a wedding canopy, and sometimes as a funeral shroud. Mr. Nefoussi said he covered the body with the tallit before leaving.