Seven killed in synagogue attack as West Bank violence spirals

Israeli forces work at the scene of the shooting attack. PHOTO: REUTERS
Security forces guard the scene of the shooting, at a synagogue in the Neve Yaakov area of Jerusalem. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Israeli forces walk next to covered bodies at the scene of a shooting in Neve Yaacov, on Jan 27, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM/GAZA - A Palestinian gunman killed at least seven people and wounded three others in a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Friday, in an attack that heightened fears of a spiral in violence, a day after the deadliest Israeli raid in the West Bank in years.

President Joe Biden talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and offered all “appropriate means of support”, the White House said.

Police said the gunman arrived at around 8.15pm and opened fire, hitting a number of people before he was killed by police.

TV footage showed several victims lying in the road outside the synagogue being tended to by emergency workers.

The attack, which police described as a “terrorist incident”, underlined fears of an escalation in violence after months of clashes in the West Bank culminating in a raid in Jenin on Thursday that killed at least nine Palestinians.

After earlier reports suggested at least 10 people had been wounded, an official from the Jerusalem police said seven people had been killed and three wounded.

He said the gunman had initially managed to flee from police before he was shot dead.

There was no initial claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but a spokesman for the Islamist movement Hamas said the attack was connected with the Jenin raid.

“This operation is a response to the crime conducted by the occupation in Jenin and a natural response to the occupation criminal actions,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.

The smaller militant group Islamic Jihad also praised the attack without claiming responsibility.

Police said in a statement that the attacker was a 21-year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem but there were no immediate details on what prompted him to carry out the attack, which took place in an area that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war.

In Ramallah, the largest city in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, news of the attack brought spontaneous street gatherings and outbreaks of celebratory gunfire, while outside the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where some of the wounded were treated, crowds chanted “Death to Terrorists”.

In a sign of the potential for further escalation, three Palestinians were taken to hospital after being shot in an incident near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. The identity of their attacker was not initially clear.

Friday’s shooting came days before a planned visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel and the West Bank. The State Department condemned the attack and said there were no changes to Mr Blinken’s travel plans.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (centre) walks with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (left), at the site of the attack. PHOTO: AFP

National security minister, Mr Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of one of the hardline nationalist parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government visited the site of the attack, where he was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos.

“The government has to respond, God willing this is what will happen,” he told a waiting crowd.

Earlier on Friday, Israeli jets struck Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks which set off alarms in Israeli communities near the border with the blockaded southern coastal strip that is controlled by Hamas.

In August, Israeli jets bombed targets in Gaza associated with the group during a weekend confrontation that saw hundreds of Islamic Jihad rockets launched against Israel, most of which were intercepted by air defence systems.

‘Deeply concerned’

The months of violence in the West Bank, which surged after a spate of lethal attacks in Israel last year, have drawn fears the already unpredictable conflict may spiral out of control, triggering a broader confrontation between Palestinians and Israel.

The latest season of violence began under the previous coalition government and has continued following the election of Mr Netanyahu’s new right-wing administration which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to expand settlements in the West Bank.

Following Thursday’s raid, the Palestinian Authority, which has limited governing powers in the West Bank, said it was suspending a security cooperation arrangement with Israel.

In Jenin refugee camp, a densely packed mass of buildings and alleyways that has been a centre of militant activity and the target of repeated Israeli raids, residents said Thursday’s operation had penetrated unusually deeply into the camp.

A two-storey building at the centre of the fighting was heavily damaged and nearby houses were tainted black from smoke. In another area around the camp’s community centre, cars had been crushed by Israeli bulldozers used in the operation.

The US State Department issued a statement on Thursday saying it was deeply concerned with the violence in the West Bank and urged both sides to de-escalate the conflict.

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City, amid air strikes by Israel on the Palestinian enclave, early on Jan 27, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

The United Nations, Egypt and Qatar have also urged calm, Palestinian officials said.

Palestinian officials said CIA director William Burns, who was visiting Israel and the West Bank on a trip arranged before the latest violence, would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday. No comment was immediately available from US officials in Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu, who returned to power this year at the head of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history, said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation, although he ordered security forces to be on alert. REUTERS

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