“They stormed the synagogue and shouted, ‘God is great!’ in Arabic and started killing people with axes and knives,” said a man in disbelief, holding his head in his hands. “They are animals!”
The profoundly incongruous juxtaposition of a sacred house of worship and the violent mass murder that two Palestinian terrorists perpetrated there on Tuesday morning transformed a picturesque and peaceful Jewish neighborhood in western Jerusalem into a scene from a horror film.
Ambulances, helicopters and heavily armed police officers surrounded the site of the massacre, Kehillat Bnei Torah Synagogue, nestled on a normally tranquil street in the ultra-Orthodox community of Har Nof.
Hundreds of shocked residents watched police and paramedics enter and leave the crime scene behind the red tape cordoning off the area.
“There were people hacked with axes on the floor screaming,” said Ezra Batzri, a 24-year-old yeshiva student.
“I heard seven gunshots, and people were running in all different directions. The cops came and told us to go back home because they thought one of the [terrorists] was still out there.”
Four rabbis, all of them wrapped in tefillin, were shot or hacked to death, while six others, including two police officers, were rushed to area hospitals in critical or serious condition.
The two suspects – 22-yearold Abed Abu Jamal and 32-year-old Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal of east Jerusalem’s Jebl Mukaber neighborhood – were killed in a shootout with officers at the synagogue’s entrance.
According to Batzri, a number of young Arabs work in the neighborhood’s grocery stores and synagogues.
“I see Arabs all the time, and I am friendly, but you don’t know who will kill next – especially with the younger generation,” he said. “You can see it in their eyes – they look at you like you are garbage.”
As a forensics team inspected the crime scene, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the rabbis had been murdered while praying among approximately 30 other worshipers.
“[The terrorists] took advantage of having ID cards to roam freely here,” said Rosenfeld. “Obviously they must have known the surroundings. Heightened security measures have been implemented in Jerusalem in all public areas – bus stops, stores, everywhere.”
One shaken woman, who requested anonymity, said she had been awakened by the sounds of helicopters. Her husband, she said, had been planning to pray at the synagogue where the murders took place, but had overslept.
“I’m very freaked out by what happened and very happy he didn’t go,” she said.
Steven Engel, who lives across the street from the synagogue, said most of the congregants who attend morning prayers are elderly.
“Some of them come with wheelchairs,” he said.
Shlomo London, 27, said that when he arrived at a nearby kindergarten after the attack to drop off his daughter, a teacher had told him to return home with her and locked the school’s entrance.
“This is not stopping – there is no end to this,” said London. “It is very scary here.”
Harold Norman, a yeshiva teacher at a building a few meters away, said he believed the killing was meant as revenge for an Egged bus driver who the Arab media claimed had been lynched by Jews the previous day, despite a coroner’s report concluding that he had hanged himself.
“Arabs don’t care to hear about the coroner’s report – for them, it’s just another reason to kill another Jew,” he said. “Jews value life; we’re not interested in killing a soul. The only time we’ll hurt someone is for self-defense.”
He continued, “I understand that the Arabs who did this worked in the neighborhood, and they have the audacity to betray the people who hired them and were nice to them? This is animalistic behavior. No one is safe in Jerusalem anymore.”
Dov Birnbaum, a father of four young children, said he had been praying at a nearby synagogue when the attack took place.
“I ran home quickly and took my children from the balcony and locked the door,” he said. “I think the scariest thing is the sense of insecurity – that this can happen in your own neighborhood, on the streets you walk on, where your children go to school... but you can’t keep the children locked inside all day. You have to keep living.”
Birnbaum paused, looking wearily at the spectacle surrounding the site of the murders.
“We hope that the world understands that this is the battle that the people of Israel are facing,” he continued. “The people who committed this crime are Israeli citizens who are treated in our hospitals and have the benefits of any Israeli citizen. Something has to change.”
David, an 18-year-old yeshiva student who studies up the road, said he was shocked that such violence could transpire in a neighborhood far removed from Arab communities.
“This is way too close to home,” he said. “When you hear of attacks in settlements, it’s understandable because there are Arab neighborhoods there, but this is a solidly Jewish neighborhood.”
David added that the nature of the ongoing terrorist attacks in the city, which have largely been perpetrated with cars and knives, had him particularly on edge.
“Every person has a knife in their kitchen and a car, so now I have to be more alert,” he said.
“I’m watching people’s hands now and looking for cars that drive too close off the road.”
His friend Tzvi said he was rattled by the terrorists’ targeting Jews in the middle of prayer.
“I’m very upset about it – they came here for no apparent reason and just attacked innocent Jews who prayed to their God, just like they [Muslims] do five times a day. They have no reason to do this.”
While Tzvi said the heavy police presence was reassuring, he added that fear and uncertainty were quickly becoming the new norm in Jerusalem.
“No one expected this to happen,” he said. “So you can see that anything can happen anytime and any place.”
Meanwhile, Joseph Cooperman said the close-knit nature of the neighborhood made the attack far more personal.
“I’m hearing people saying, ‘It’s his uncle, his father-in-law. Is he hurt or dead?”’ he said.
“Everybody knows each other.”