Two Palestinians wielding meat cleavers and a pistol attacked Jewish worshipers Tuesday at a Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers, killing four worshipers and a police officer and wounding five others before they were shot dead by police, an Israeli police spokesman said.
Three of the slain worshipers were identified as dual Israeli-American citizens.
The attack, part of a wave of violence fueled by rising tensions over a contested holy site in Jerusalem, indicated that the latest spike in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking on increasingly religious overtones.
Israeli media accounts of bloodied victims in prayer shawls and comparisons of the scene to deadly rampages in previous centuries against Jews in Russia and Europe stoked outrage in Israel.
“Seeing Jews wrapped in prayer shawls . . . lying in giant pools of blood inside a synagogue with dozens of holy books scattered around on the floor are scenes we saw only at the time of the Holocaust,” said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of an ultra-Orthodox rescue service that arrived at the scene.
President Barack Obama condemned the attack, as did Secretary of State John Kerry, who called it “an act of pure terror and senseless brutality” that was “a pure result of incitement” that he said should be reined in by the Palestinian leadership.
Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a bid to prevent further escalation.
The attackers, identified as two cousins from East Jerusalem, burst into a synagogue in the devoutly religious Jewish neighborhood of Har Nof about 7 a.m., opened fire and stabbed men at prayer, witnesses and police said.
“I turned and saw someone with a gun starting to shoot people next to him at point-blank range,” Yosef Posternak, one of the worshipers, told Israel Radio. “Immediately after that someone came in with a butcher’s knife and began lashing out in all directions.”
“People were lying on the floor and there was blood everywhere,” Posternak said, adding that he hid under a table and managed to escape at a moment when a worshiper tried to hit the gunman with a chair.
“There were people trying to confront them here and there, but they didn’t have much of a chance,” he added.
Several police officers rushed to the scene. The assailants shot one of the officers, who was wounded critically and died later.
Another officer opened fire as the attackers emerged from the synagogue, killing them minutes after they began their assault, police officials said. The assailants were identified as Udai and Ghassan Abu Jamal from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukabar.
Three of the slain worshipers were identified as Moshe Twersky, 59, Aryeh Kupinsky, 43, and Kalman Levine, 55, all dual Israeli-American citizens.
Levine grew up in the Kansas City area, where he was known as Cary William Levine before moving to Israel in his 20s. Twersky, originally from the Boston area, immigrated to Israel in 1990, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the son of a prominent rabbi, Isadore Twersky, the founder of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. Israeli authorities offered no information about Kupinsky’s U.S. roots. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said he was married with five children.
The fourth worshiper was identified as Avraham Goldberg, 68, who held Israeli and British citizenship. The dead police officer was identified as Zidan Seif, 30, a member of the minority Druze sect.
Israeli law enforcement officials called the attack, like other recent knifings and deadly driving assaults, “popular terrorism” by individuals acting on their own without support or instructions from a militant group.
The surge of spontaneous attacks, which officials said were hard to prevent, has increased a sense of insecurity among Israelis.
Abbas condemned the attack, with his office issuing a statement denouncing all attacks on civilians. After speaking with Kerry, Abbas sharpened his message. “We emphatically condemn such events and we do not accept under any circumstances attacks on civilians,” he told a meeting of top aides. “We call for complete calm regarding such actions.”
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to “respond harshly” to the attack, called it “a direct result of the incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen,” Abbas’ nickname.
Shrill rhetoric on both sides has increased in recent weeks amid rising tensions in Jerusalem triggered by attempts by Israeli right-wing politicians and activists to lift a ban on Jewish prayer at the city’s most sensitive holy site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
A prominent Jewish campaigner for greater Jewish access to the site was shot and wounded in Jerusalem on Oct. 29, and the suspected attacker was later killed by police.
Abbas has called on Palestinians to block attempts by Jewish activists to “defile” the area, a compound surrounding Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and he has accused Israel of provoking a “religious war.”
Netanyahu has accused Abbas of abetting violence, asserting that there are no plans to change prayer arrangements at the contested compound, revered by Jews as the site of the ancient first and second Jewish temples.
Tensions were further stoked in Jerusalem before Tuesday’s attack by the discovery Sunday of the body of an Arab bus driver hanging in a bus. An Israeli-led autopsy found that it was a suicide, but a Palestinian pathologist who was present at the inquest disputed that finding, saying the victim had been strangled.
An uncle of one of the attackers said in a radio interview that repeated entry by Jewish activists to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and the death of the Arab driver had provoked the assault on the synagogue. Last week, a mosque in a West Bank village was burned in what Palestinians said was an arson attack by Jewish settlers.
After meeting with top security officials, Netanyahu ordered the demolition of the homes of the families of the two synagogue attackers.
The minister of interior security, Yitzhak Aharanovich, said he would ease gun-control regulations, enabling off-duty army officers and security guards to carry their pistols at all times in order to respond to possible attacks. He said arrests of Palestinian suspects would be stepped up, including detentions without trial, and tighter checks would be enforced at entrances and exits to Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
But law enforcement officials acknowledged that they had limited ability to prevent spontaneous attacks by lone Palestinian assailants.
“This is not something that could have been known in advance,” Israeli police chief Yohanan Danino said after the synagogue attack. Aharonovich conceded: “We can’t be on every street corner.”
In a string of attacks in the past month, four people were killed when two Palestinian drivers, in separate incidents, plowed their vehicles into pedestrians near light rail stations in Jerusalem, a female settler was struck by a car and stabbed to death in the West Bank, and a soldier was killed in a knifing in Tel Aviv.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age and name for Kalman Levine.