Four prominent rabbis, including three US citizens and one British citizen, were brutally murdered in a terrorist attack at a western Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday morning that left seven other men seriously wounded. The attack took place shortly after 7 a.m., when two Arab suspects from east Jerusalem’s Jebl Mukaber neighborhood stormed the Kehillat Bnei Torah Synagogue in Har Nof, wielding axes, knives and a pistol, to attack its more than 30 congregants, police said. According to witnesses, the terrorists shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” before proceeding to kill and maim the victims.
The four fatalities were identified as Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, 43, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68, Rabbi Kalman Ze’ev Levine, 55, and Rabbi Moshe Twersky, 59, all from Har Nof. The killers – identified as Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32 – were killed in a shootout with police at the synagogue’s entrance. One of the officers involved in the gun fight was shot in the head, and another was seriously wounded, police said. Kupinsky, Levine and Twersky held dual US-Israeli citizenship after immigrating from America. Goldberg had come to Israel from Britain. Funerals for the four rabbis took place Tuesday afternoon.
The seven surviving victims were rushed to the capital’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. Two were in critical condition, two sustained serious wounds and one was moderately wounded, while one suffered light wounds, hospital representatives said. Dozens of Border Police officers arrived at the scene within minutes and cordoned off the area as hundreds of yeshiva students and residents of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood watched events unfold.
Many continuously fielded phone calls on their smartphones from concerned family and friends who had learned of the attack on the news. Others rushed home with small children and locked their doors. According to a Hadassah official, the officer who was shot in the head remains in critical condition with severe bleeding from his wounds, while four haredi men suffered severe and complex wounds to their arms and legs.
Shaare Zedek had originally received the critically wounded policeman, but transferred him to Hadassah’s neurosurgery department. Shaare Zedek received and treated three more victims, including one with moderate wounds who underwent surgery and two others with light wounds. United Hatzalah volunteers, who were among the first responders, said the scenes at the synagogues were “one of the cruelest” they had ever witnessed.
Paramedic Yanki Erlich said he had bent down to check on the first victim and suddenly heard gunshots fired in his direction. In an attempt to jump to safety, he slipped in a puddle of blood and fell, breaking his leg before dragging himself to safety. Avi Nefosi, also a paramedic, arrived from around the corner of the synagogue and found himself taking cover behind his car as the gun fight raged overhead and additional police reinforcements raced to the scene. Magen David Adom paramedic Bezalel Ben-Hemo said he had immediately begun treating the victims when he arrived at the scene.
“We found a man outside, fully conscious, with three gunshot wounds,” he said. “We evacuated him from the scene and asked him to breathe slowly.” The man managed to tell Ben-Hemo that there were no more terrorists active in the area.
“We rushed him to the Shaare Zedek Medical Center,” the paramedic said. “Unfortunately we have recently been getting used to these scenes, which remind us of past terror attacks. They are returning with full force.” Once the police declared it safe for medical rescue services to enter the area, dozens of Hatzalah and MDA medics and paramedics rushed inside while helicopters hovered above.
After attending to those who needed help, Hatzalah physician Dr. Joyce Morrel said she had bent down to one of the casualties still lying on the ground and covered him with his prayer shawl. “As a medic and a resident of the neighborhood, I was among the first to get to the scene,” said Hatzalah volunteer Eli Pollak. “First I had to hide under my car, since shots were still being fired. After the all-clear from the police, I could enter the building and see the injured and the bodies, some of whom I knew, still in their prayer shawls and phylacteries.”
Following the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the demolition of the two terrorists’ homes – the most significant operational step taken in the immediate aftermath of the murders. The directive came at an emergency security session he convened in his office with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yoram Cohen, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and other top security officials. In addition to ordering the demolition of those homes, he gave orders to move forward with the demolition of the homes of other terrorists who had carried out recent attacks.
Netanyahu ordered significantly ratcheting up law enforcement against those guilty of incitement. Later Tuesday morning, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said nine Arabs had been arrested for rioting in Jebl Mukaber. “Security assessments continue to be carried out and will be implemented throughout the capital,” he said. Hamas subsequently praised the attack, referring to the killers as heroes and martyrs. In an interview on CNN, Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor condemned the murders, warning against incitement and calls for days of rage across the territories.
“If you look at today, basically, ordinary Israelis cannot find a sanctuary in a synagogue,” Prosor said. “I have to tell the American people, and everyone else, Israel is on the front line in countering terrorism.” He added, “If you’re not with us today, you’ll find terrorism on your doorstep tomorrow.” Barkat released a statement in which he strongly condemned the attack, vowed to continue fighting terrorists and exhorted the international community to condemn the massacre as well.
“Jerusalem bows its head in pain and sorrow on this difficult morning,” Barkat said. “Jerusalem residents peacefully praying in a synagogue in the heart of Jerusalem were cruelly slaughtered in cold blood while wearing their prayer shawls. I promise Jerusalem residents that we will continue to fight terrorism with full force, and we will do everything in our power to restore peace and security to Jerusalem.”
The mayor continued: “I call on Israel’s national government and security forces to provide Jerusalem with all of the support necessary to fight terrorism. I call on the international community to strongly condemn this horrific act. We will not surrender to terrorism. We will stand strong and defend our city from those who try to disturb the peace of our capital.” Barkat later sent another statement saying that security would be increased in all the capital’s educational institutions, including kindergartens, adding that social workers had been sent to help families of the victims and the people who were in the vicinity of the attack.