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4 rabbis killed in attack on Jerusalem synagogue: what you need to know

Israelis react to the synagogue attack.
Israelis react to the synagogue attack.
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

  1. Two Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem attacked an Israeli synagogue Tuesday morning, killing four — including three Americans. The attackers were killed by police.
  2. The two men are believed to have acted alone, but there are conflicting reports about a militant group claiming responsibility.
  3. The attack happened after months of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian youth in Jerusalem.
  4. The situation may spiral. Palestinian militant groups praised the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would respond "with a heavy hand," and Israeli police are bracing for more clashes with Palestinians.

This attack is a major escalation in the ongoing Jerusalem conflict

Early on Tuesday morning, two Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem stormed the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue, armed with meat cleavers and a gun. The two men, cousins named Odai and Ghasan Abu Jamal, killed four rabbis while they prayed. Three of them were dual American-Israeli citizens and one was a British-Israeli citizen. One Israeli police officer was severely wounded, and several others were hurt.

Jerusalem has been ground zero for Israeli-Palestinian tensions in recent weeks, suffused with conflict between East Jerusalemites and Israeli police. But this attack marks a major escalation in the severity of the violence.

East Jerusalem's Arab residents live in a kind of limbo: they don't hold Israeli citizenship like Israeli Arabs, but they live under Israeli rather than Palestinian Authority rule. For months, and especially after the murder of a Palestinian youth by Jewish extremists in July, Arab residents have been protesting and rioting, throwing rocks at Israelis and attacking Jerusalem's light rail system.

Because the West Bank is largely governed by the Palestinian Authority and Gaza by Hamas, "Jerusalem is the one place where Palestinians can stick it to Israelis," Danny Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem, said. There riots are a largely unorganized expression of rage at Israel — and this terrorist attack marks a very dangerous escalation.

There have been lethal attacks in the current Jerusalem conflict before, including cars being driven into civilians. But the synagogue attack is by far the most spectacular, and it comes on the heels of the controversial death of Palestinian bus driver Yusuf al-Rumuni in West Jerusalem. Rumuni was found hung in his bus — the Israeli autopsy report concluded that he killed himself, but many Palestinians believe he was murdered.

So things are bad. And they could get worse.

The situation in Jerusalem is incredibly volatile

Jerusalem is bracing for conflict. Israeli police are on high alert, prepared for a night of clashes with Palestinian youth. These attacks could easily grow out of control, creating a major conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Even if those clashes are subdued, Israeli or Palestinian responses could further escalate the Jerusalem crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister has blamed violent rhetoric from the Palestinian Authority leadership in recent days for inciting the attack. However, the head of the Shin Bet, Israel's FBI equivalent, has said the PA isn't encouraging the attacks. We know that Netanyahu promised to respond to the synagogue attack with a "heavy hand" — the nature of that response has yet to be announced, though Israel already detained some family members of the killers.

On the Palestinian Authority side, President Mahmoud Abbas has officially condemned the attack. But Hamas officials praised it, and there are sketchy reports that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — a less frequently heard from militant group —has claimed responsibility. This rhetoric,  to say nothing of actual follow-up attacks, has the potential to escalate the conflict even further.

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