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At least four dead in Jerusalem attack, police kill two assailants

At least four Israelis have been killed in a gun and axe attack on a synagogue in west Jerusalem on Tuesday morning
Relatives of the synagogue attack victims wait at the hospital in Jerusalem (MEE/Andrea Di Cenzo)

At least four Israelis were killed and several others wounded, including four critically, in an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue early on Tuesday morning.

According to MEE contributors in Jerusalem, four civilians have been confirmed dead. A fifth man, a policeman is also in critical condition and is currently in surgery, medical sources said. Initial reports indicated that the policeman had also been killed, although the authorities did not cofirm this.

"There are four dead and six injured, among them two policemen," police spokesperson Luba Samri said in a statement.

Police shot dead two of the attackers at the scene, with a third man possibly on the run in the area. The men have been named as Ghassan Abu Odai, 23, and Odai Abu Jamal, 30 - two cousins from East Jerusalem.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has said the attackers were members of their group, in a statement posted to Facebook, saying the incident is a “natural response to the crimes of the occupation”, but did not take responsibility for the killings.

The PFLP is a revolutionary-leftist organisation that gained notoriety in the 1960s and 70s for a series of aircraft hijackings. The group views the Fatah-dominated government in the West Bank and Hamas administration in Gaza as illegitimate due to an absence of elections since 2006. However, there have been a raft of conflicting reports about their membership, with family members telling MEE that the pair did not belong to any political group.

The attack began shortly before 7am (0500 GMT) as worshippers were attending morning prayers at a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood on the western outskirts of the city. 

"Two terrorists, apparently from East Jerusalem, entered a yeshiva [Jewish seminary] in Har Nof and attacked worshippers with axes and a pistol," the spokesperson said.

Families of the synagogue victims gathered at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem in the wake of the attack.

“At 7.05am (0505 GMT) a 12-year-old boy came knocking on the door of the house and said ‘the Arabs have gone into the synagogue. They came in with guns and axes and they are killing everyone.’,” said Sepora Heller, mother-in-law of one of the victims, Shmulik Goldstein, said.

"The boy, who was in the synagogue, had crawled along the floor to a partially open door as the attack took place and escaped," Heller tole MEE contributor Andrea Di Cenzo.

Eliyahu Rotenberg, an Israeli resident who lives near the synagogue told Haaretz: "We heard the sirens and I went outside and saw police taking cover and shooting. Many shots were fired and I saw one of the police get wounded and the terrorists being killed."

Yoram Weiss, medical director of the Hadassah Medical Centre told MEE that the hospital was treating four severely wounded patients

“All of them have either gunshot wounds or injuries associated caused by a machete. All of them have some kind of head injury. Three of them are in the operating room right now," he added.

Oren Ziv, MEE contributor on the ground said that blood was clearly visible outside the synagogue, with abandoned clothes, bags and bicycles lining the pavement as people fled.

“The media has not been allowed inside but we saw photos and you can see a lot of blood. It appears that the attack happened inside and also outside the synagogue,” Ziv told MEE by phone.

“For now, the medics and the emergency crews are still working to clean all the blood.”

Knesset Membe, Miri Regev was one of several politicians to visit the synagogue. She told media that the scene was reminiscent of “really dark times” in Jewish history.

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, chairman of the ZAKA emergency response teams, also described the scene inside the synagogue.

"I've seen disaster scenes that were a lot worse with more fatalities, but to see Jews with beards and pe’ot [sidelocks] wrapped in teffilin [phylacteries], surrounded by puddles of blood – I do not remember seeing such a sight.”

A policeman guards the Orthodox synagogue in Har Nof neighbourhood in west Jerusalem (MEE / Oren Ziv)

The attack is the deadliest to hit Jerusalem in several years and comes on the back of rising tensions that have flared up in East Jerusalem but spread to the West Bank and to mixed and Palestinian-dominated areas inside Israel.

Dozens of Israeli police have surrounded the East Jerusalem homes of the two slain Palestinians accused of carrying out the deadly attack, according to Anadolu Agency. Witnesses told AA troops had stormed the Jabal al-Mukaber neighbourhood in large numbers and surrounded the house of suspected attackers.

A number of the Palestinian men’s relatives are being questioned in relation to the incident.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has released a statement condemning the attack.

“The presidency condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it,” the statement read.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad hailed the attack, saying it was in reaction to the death of a Palestinian bus driver. 

Hamas, which governs Gaza and fought a 51-day war with Israel this summer, said it was "a response to the murder of the martyr Yusuf Ramuni," a reference to a bus driver from East Jerusalem, who was found hanged inside his vehicle late on Sunday.

Initial reports said that Ramuni has been beaten and murdered, but subsequent police investigations concluded it was suicide, a claim Ramuni’s family and colleagues continue to reject.

Hamas spokesperson Hussam Badran said that the latest operation is a considerable development in the face of the occupation, blaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling on the PA to end security cooperation with Israel.

Netanyahu, however, pointed the blame at Hamas and also lashed out at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The PM's spokesperson Mark Regev went further, once again equating Hamas with the Islamic State group, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The militant group yesterday released its latest video showing the beheading of US aid worker Peter Kassig, alongside with 18 alleged Syrian army officers.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attack as “an act of pure terror and senseless brutality” when speaking in London ahead of talks with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

Netanyahu has now called for an emergency security consultation this afternoon at his Jerusalem base, his office announced on its Twitter account.

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