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Synagogue Attack Fuels Rising Tensions In Jerusalem


Tension and violence have been rising in Jerusalem for weeks. And today it got worse.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Hebrew).

SIEGEL: Prayers for four Israelis killed in an attack by two Palestinian men on a synagogue. Three of the victims were dual U.S.-Israeli citizens. Several other people were injured before Israeli police killed the attackers. NPR's Emily Harris joins us now from Jerusalem. And Emily, what have you learned about what happened today?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Well, things started off pretty early in the morning, right around 7 a.m. during morning prayers at a neighborhood synagogue in West Jerusalem. Two Palestinian men, who are from an East Jerusalem neighbor, entered the synagogue and, as you mentioned, started an attack. Witnesses said they used a large knife and a gun. There was a traffic police officer who was apparently the first one on the scene, and other police were there within minutes. Reports in the Israeli media say that police were shooting from the outside at the attackers who were at that point just inside the entrance of the synagogue. There have been pictures in the media here today - many photos and images both of the funerals of the four men who were killed and then bloody scenes from inside the synagogue.

SIEGEL: Now, you mentioned the assailants were from East Jerusalem. This is the part of the city that was under Arab rule until Israel captured it in the 1967 war. How is it that armed Palestinians from there managed to attack a synagogue in Jewish West Jerusalem?

HARRIS: Well, first of all, Israeli police are investigating the details of that. One main focus of their investigation is whether these two Palestinian men were familiar with the neighborhood in some way - if one of them had worked nearby, for example. But, you know, even though Jerusalem is segregated in many ways - east to west - there's no physical barrier at all. There's no stopping anyone from driving between the two parts of the city unlike in the West Bank, which is almost entirely now walled or fenced off from Israel, as is Gaza, of course. So Palestinians from either of those areas have to have a permit to enter Israel. But Palestinians who live in Jerusalem, who may be Israeli citizens or may be just residents of Jerusalem, can travel anywhere in Israeli, including to West Jerusalem neighborhoods. These two men, who are cousins, were both from an East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood that is basically in-between the separation wall separating Israel from the West Bank and a West Jerusalem neighborhood - a Jewish neighborhood - right in between those two.

SIEGEL: Now, in recent weeks there have been smaller deadly attack on Israelis, and Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. What do people think is causing this wave of recent unrest?

HARRIS: There are a number of things people point to. The tensions began before the summer. The war in Gaza heightened tensions. There is no peace process going on right now. But the most immediate focus of the spike-up in violence in Jerusalem has been - a lot of it's been around access to the hilltop in the Old City that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary - a holy spot to both religions. Many Muslims interpret visits by Jews to that area, Jews who would like to pray there or some who have a dream of building - rebuilding a Jewish temple there as a provocation, even an attack on their Muslim holy site. There was also a bill in the Israeli parliament that sought to give Jews more access. That was seen as an affront to many Muslims. No one's been killed in those recent conflicts on the hilltop itself, but there are some concerns that that background and then now this attack in a place of worship while people were praying might change the tenor of this national political conflict to a religious fight.

SIEGEL: How have the Palestinian authority president and the Israeli prime minister responded to all of this?

HARRIS: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack. He went on in his statement to demand what he called an end to provocative acts by Israelis on this holy site - the Temple Mount or the Noble Sanctuary. And he called on Israel to end its occupation of land that Palestinians want for a future state of their own. Netanyahu said that Israel is in a battle for Jerusalem, what he called Israel's eternal capital. And he said the root cause is constant Palestinian incitement against the existence of Israel.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Emily.

HARRIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.