‘It Looked Like a Pogrom’

The grisly murder of four rabbis in Jerusalem marks the latest attack in a wave of violence that Israeli leaders are struggling to contain.

Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images
Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images

JERUSALEM — When Jews pray, particularly religious Jews, it is usually with their eyes closed. So were the worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday morning, eyes shut, heads bowed, as two Palestinian men entered their sanctuary and proceeded to hack the bodies of four rabbis with a meat cleaver. Still wearing prayer shawls, their heads and hands wrapped in tefillin, the men were found covered in blood, carved up and mutilated, organs outside of their bodies.

"It looked like a pogrom," said an eyewitness to the scene, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Three of the rabbis were U.S.-born, dual Israeli citizens, while the fourth was a dual British citizen. The assailants — two Palestinians from East Jerusalem, armed with knives, axes, and a gun — were killed in a shootout with police after exiting the synagogue in the Har Nof area of West Jerusalem, located just three miles from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Four additional worshippers were seriously injured in the attack, along with two police officers, one of whom succumbed to his wounds late Tuesday night.

"This type of attack hasn’t happened in years," said Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman. "Both in terms of size and scale, and where it took place, inside a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood, not inside the Old City where there is so much tension."

While today’s attack was the most gruesome to date, acts of violence like this are becoming elements of daily life in Israel. Whereas previous uprisings were marked by suicide bombings, galvanized by leaders and movements, the latest period of unrest has been characterized by lone-wolf attacks. Over the course of the past two weeks, five Israelis have been killed by Palestinians, who stabbed their victims to death with a knife, or ran them over with a car.

The attacks in the current wave of violence have employed the tools of everyday life, and are therefore more difficult to stop. Since the Second Intifada, which was characterized by frequent suicide bombings, Israeli intelligence has thwarted dozens of planned terror attacks involving suicide bombers. It’s a bit harder to prevent a Palestinian driver from plowing his car into a crowd of hitchhikers on the side of the road, and then stabbing a young woman to death, as occurred in the West Bank just one week ago.

While there is no unified force behind these latest attacks, some of the attackers have been affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said Rosenfeld, and have served time in Israeli prisons for previous terrorist activity.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a far-left militant organization founded in 1967, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s synagogue attack, saying that the assailants were members of its armed wing. However, it didn’t go so far as to say that the organization instructed them to commit this act of terror. Israeli authorities are downplaying the PFLP’s claim, saying that it’s far too early to determine which group was responsible.

"The point is not which organization is behind the attack," said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon. "This attack reflects a general state of mind in Palestinian society. The Palestinian Authority’s incitement to violence against Jews is irresponsible, and at the end of the day translates into actual acts of violence."

Most of these attacks have also been waged from within, another factor that makes them difficult to prevent. Rosenfeld noted that many of the assailants are from Jerusalem and possess Israeli identity cards, which allow them to move around freely.

Israeli leaders are intensifying security measures in an effort to quell the violence. Extra police units have been mobilized throughout Jerusalem in the last few weeks, but after today’s attack, Rosenfeld said that there would be more "spot checks, more police patrols, and more foot patrols throughout Jerusalem neighborhoods in order to prevent further violence."

In a security cabinet meeting hours after the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the demolition of the homes of the assailants in Tuesday’s killings, and also the homes of the perpetrators of other recent terror attacks. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch also broached the idea of easing restrictions on firearm possession among Jerusalem residents for the purpose of self-defense. He also commissioned the deployment of more Border Patrol officers, and erected more checkpoints in Arab villages.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu blamed the horrific attack, along with the wave of recent violence, on incitement by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

"They say we want to destroy their holy places at the Temple Mount," said Netanyahu, referencing the escalation of tensions over access to Jerusalem’s most controversial religious site. In Judaism, the Temple Mount is regarded as the holiest place in the world — where God’s presence first manifested, where God created Adam, and where the divine presence resided before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. In Islam, it is known as Haram al-Sharif, home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in the world among Muslims, after Mecca and Medina.

The Jerusalem Waqf, or Islamic religious committee, manages the Temple Mount, which is under the custody of Jordan. Jewish prayer at the site is strictly forbidden. The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of trying to change the status quo to permit Jewish prayer, an accusation the Israeli prime minister vehemently denies.

"It’s all lies that have already cost the lives of three-month-old Chaya Zissel," Netanyahu said on Tuesday, referring to the victim of one of last month’s terror attacks in Jerusalem. In that case, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem drove his car into Jewish pedestrians who were waiting at a Jerusalem light rail station, killing the infant girl and a 22-year old-woman.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement condemning Tuesday’s attack, but Netanyahu dismissed it as "not enough," because it linked the attack to issues of access to the Temple Mount. On Facebook on Tuesday, Abbas’s own Fatah party praised the attackers as "heroic."

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have urged Palestinians to wage violence against Israelis, and praised the recent attackers as martyrs. The militant Palestinian factions have portrayed the attack as revenge for the death of Yousuf al-Ramouni, a 32-year-old Palestinian bus driver who was found hanged inside his bus on Sunday night, at the station where he was to begin his route. While an autopsy carried out by the National Institute of Forensic Medicine found that the hanging was a case of suicide, many Palestinians claimed that Jewish settlers were guilty of a lynching.

"The attack in Jerusalem is a reaction to the crime and execution of the martyr al-Ramouni and a reaction to the crimes of the occupation," read a message from Hamas, on its official al-Aqsa TV. "The Hamas movement is calling for more revenge attacks."

With tensions in Jerusalem seemingly spiraling further out of control, the grisly attack on Tuesday seemed to represent a turning point in its brutality. But no one in the Israeli government wants to admit or imagine that this could be more than a series of violent attacks by lone wolves.

"For the moment, the kind of violence we’re seeing is cars and knives — but who knows which way it will turn," said Nachshon. "It’s far too early to say, but I certainly hope this is not the beginning of a new intifada."

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