Jerusalem on edge as Israel vows ‘harsh response’ to synagogue attack

Latest violence will be met with ‘heavy hand,’ Netanyahu says; Palestinian President Abbas condemns attack

An attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem in which four worshippers and a police officer were killed by Palestinian attackers — later shot dead by police — has ramped up tensions in the region, with Israel vowing a “harsh” response to the latest act of violence.

The two assailants stormed the Har Nof Synagogue armed with axes and guns before engaging in a shoot-out with security forces. One officer succumbed to injuries sustained in the shootout later on Tuesday and another was injured.

The attack represents the deadliest such incident in the holy city for six years and comes on the back of incessant tit-for-tat reprisal attacks in recent weeks. Among the dead were three American-Israeli and one British-Israeli dual nationals, Israeli police said.

Tensions have been high in Jerusalem over access to the city’s holiest site and over Israeli settlement in the occupied eastern part of the city. But Tuesday's attack shattered the tranquillity that prevailed in the western parts of the city despite the tensions of recent weeks.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s attack, five Israelis and a foreign visitor have been killed in attacks in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, about a dozen Palestinians have also been killed, including the two men responsible for the synagogue attack.

Late on Sunday, a Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in his vehicle. Israeli police said he committed suicide, but Palestinians said he was killed by Israeli settlers.

The latest attack is likely to spur more violence. After the synagogue attack, Israeli police entered some predominantly Palestinian areas in Jerusalem to make arrests. They were met with protesters armed with stones. Police responded with tear gas.

Leaders on both sides did little to tamp down tensions in the immediate aftermath of the synagogue attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "respond harshly" to the incident, describing the attack as a "cruel murder of Jews who came to pray and were killed by despicable murderers." He immediately ordered the demolition of the assailant's homes, as well as homes of Palestinians who carried out several other recent attacks.

The armed group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) released a short statement confirming that the attackers — named by Palestinian media and Israeli police as Ghassan Abu Jamal and Udai Abu Jamal — were among its members.

"This operation proves that the Palestinian people and their resistance forces can strike the enemy in the simplest ways," read the statement. It did not make clear whether the PFLP had ordered the attack but called for an escalation of the resistance "in all its forms and wherever Palestinians are found."

Hamas, which denied involvement, released a statement praising the synagogue attack, saying it was a "response to continued Israeli crimes, the killing, desecrating Al-Aqsa [mosque]," a reference to a recent incident at the holy site.

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement condemning the attack, saying, "The time has come to end the occupation and to end the causes of tension and violence, and we are committed to a just solution based on two states according to international law."

President Barack Obama also condemned the attack, saying in a statement, "There is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians."

"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," he said.

‘Jerusalem is boiling’

Around 25 people were believed to be inside the synagogue at the time of the attack.

Television footage showed paramedics assisting wounded worshippers and a bloodied butcher's knife near the scene of the attack, which was surrounded by police.

Yosef Posternak, who was at the synagogue at the time told Israel Radio: "I saw people lying on the floor, blood everywhere. People were trying to fight with (the attackers) but they didn't have much of a chance," he said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said it wasn't immediately clear what weapons the suspects used to attack the worshippers at the synagogue. Israeli media reported the attackers were armed with axes and knives, although initial reports said the attackers were armed with guns.

Another police spokeswoman, Luba Samri, said the attackers, who media reports described as cousins, were Palestinians from east Jerusalem, which has been the scene of repeated clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in recent months.

Soon after the attack, dozens of police officers gathered outside the Abu Jamals' home. Samri said this was part of the police investigation. She said residents threw stones at the police officers.

The latest violence comes after ongoing reprisal violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the city, which is divided between a largely Arab east and a mostly Jewish west. Tuesday's attack took place at a synagogue in west Jerusalem.

I recent weeks tensions have grown largely over the flashpoint of Jerusalem’s holiest site — known as Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims.

Palestinians are angry at what they say are repeated attempts by right-wing Jews to enter the compound housing the al-Aqsa mosque.

"Everyone expected this to happen. Jerusalem is boiling," Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera.

"Yesterday, the Israeli forces demolished the houses of the Palestinians who attacked Israelis but they never punish Israeli attackers. We are expecting more violence."

Earlier this year, tension boiled over into a 50-day Gaza war, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis dead.

With wire services

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