AFP — Tuesday morning began as normal in the leafy west Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof, with residents gathering to pray in their local synagogue.
Two hours later, after the holy city’s bloodiest attack on Jews in years killed four worshipers, an ultra-Orthodox man in black and white robes swayed outside as he mourned the dead.
At 7 a.m., two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers burst into the house of worship and cut down four people before themselves being shot dead by security forces, police said.
Onlookers were kept behind cordons and women wailed as dozens of forensic specialists crowded around the synagogue entrance and inspected what appeared to be the attackers’ car.
Sarah Abrahams, a horrified resident, described scenes of carnage.
“I was going for a morning walk and passing by on the road above the synagogue,” she said.
“Someone told me not to go any closer and that there was something big going on, but I walked down to see.
“There were people running from the synagogue, and a man sitting on the pavement covered in blood, it looked like he has been stabbed,” she said.
“The police were already there, and when one of the terrorists emerged from the synagogue they shot him on the steps.
“Two people came out with their faces half missing, looking like they’d been attacked with knives.”
As she spoke, medics brought out four bodies one by one, each wrapped in white plastic, and loaded them gently into ambulances.
The rare attack on a place of worship sent shock waves across Israel.
It came as months of unrest gripped the city’s annexed Arab eastern sector and amid a wave of deadly attacks by lone Palestinians.
Residents were perplexed as to why the attack targeted their neighborhood, far from flashpoint east Jerusalem areas that have seen most of the violence.
“This is a yeshiva (Jewish seminary) community. Ninety percent don’t serve in the army. We’re not violent,” said Moshe Eliezer.
“I woke up 15 minutes late this morning, normally I’d have been there praying,” he said, visibly shaken and fighting back tears.
“I know one of the kids,” Eliezer added of one of the shooting victims. “He was a tremendous scholar, and wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Both Israel’s government and the public are already blaming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“This is the direct result of incitement by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas), incitement that the international community ignores in an irresponsible manner,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
“The Palestinian leadership has been inciting them (would-be attackers) for years, saying we’re a cancerous tumor,” he said. “They want to annihilate us.”
Abbas condemned Tuesday’s attack and “all violent actions.” But he also slammed as “provocations” attempts by Jewish extremists to claim prayer rights at the Old City’s Temple Mount compound — a site sacred to both faiths and one of the most sensitive in the Middle East. Israel’s leadership has made repeatedly clear that it does not intend to allow Jewish prayer at the site.
Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas hailed the attack as a response to the death of a Palestinian driver from East Jerusalem found hanged in his bus late Sunday. An Israeli autopsy established that there had been no foul play, and pointed to suicide, but the driver’s family refused to accept this.
“Maybe it’s our own fault,” Eliezer added mournfully of anti-Jewish violence. “Not for the reasons the left-wingers say, but for spiritual reasons.”