Two Palestinian militants attacked a synagogue in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of West Jerusalem Tuesday, disrupting the congregation during worship and firing at prayer leaders.
According to The New York Times, “two Palestinians armed with a gun, knives and axes burst into their synagogue Tuesday morning, shouting ‘God is great!’ in Arabic. Within moments, three rabbis and a fourth pious man lay dead, blood pooling on their prayer shawls and holy books.”
Israeli security forces responded rapidly and engaged the Palestianian gunmen in a shootout. Both Palestianian militants were killed and two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the gun battle, one fatally.
The New York Times reports: “Relatives of the attackers, Odai Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32, said the cousins were motivated by what they saw as threats of a Jewish takeover of Al Aqsa and the death of a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem. The driver, Yousef al-Ramouni, was found hanged in his bus Sunday; the Israeli authorities say he committed suicide, but his family insists that he was lynched by Jews.”
This brutal attack raises further tensions in the Palestianian-Israeli conflict and has already prompted Isreali military retaliation. Israeli forces have resumed their policy of demolishing the homes of Palestianians who commit attacks on Jews.
The assault on the synagogue is a reminder of the serious religious dimesions of the Palestianian-Israeli conflict, which are often dismissed or caricatured in the news media.
Religious politics and a desire to defend a beleaguered mosque provided motivations for the assault on the synagogue. The alleged lynching of a Palestinian bus driver, apparently perceived as an ethnic and religious attack on the Palestinian community, also seems to have fueled the militants’ desire to take action.
The Palestinian militants’ choice of targeting a religious site (an Orthodox synagogue) and clergy (rabbis) was clearly deliberate. Investigations may reveal why the militants chose the particular synagogue in West Jerusalem, but some Orthodox Jewish preaching in Jerusalem has focused recently on the need to restore the Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, which would involve altering or destroying the Al Aqsa mosque. A series of protests and clashes in and around the Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary, and the Al Aqsa mosque have erupted over the previous several months. So, the militants may have perceived their attack as a defense against a religious rhetoric and temple reconstruction program that threatened their own religious practices and spaces.
The timing of the attack was also coordinated to occur during a period of sacred time, in this case, a worship service.
The Palestianian gunmen did not flee from the synagogue, perhaps indicating that they were prepared for martyrdom. More details about the attackers may emerge later to allow an analysis of the possibility of martyrdom discourses in this attack.
A new Palestianian-Israeli peace process that takes into account the religious dimensions of the conflict—as well as political, territorial, national, ethnic, economic, and environmental, and justice issues—is desperately needed.
Researchers and students working on religious politics and religious violence will want to follow this developing story.