JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian gunman opened fire outside an east Jerusalem synagogue Friday night, killing seven people, including a 70-year-old woman, and wounding three others before police shot and killed him, officials said. It was the deadliest attack on Israelis in years and raised the likelihood of further bloodshed.
The attack, which took place as worshippers were celebrating the Jewish Sabbath, came a day after an Israeli military raid killed nine people in the West Bank. The new attack set off public celebrations in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where people fired guns into the air, honked car horns and distributed sweets.
The burst of violence, which also included a rocket barrage from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, has posed an early challenge for Israel’s new government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have pushed for a hard line against Palestinian violence. It also cast a cloud over a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region Sunday.
Israeli police said the attack occurred in Neve Yaakov, a Jewish area in east Jerusalem.
Jerusalem police chief Doron Turjeman told reporters the shooter was killed after trying to escape. He confirmed seven deaths, in addition to the shooter, and said three people were wounded.
Police identified the attacker as a 21-year-old east Jerusalem resident who apparently acted alone. Turjeman promised an “aggressive and significant” effort to track down anyone who had helped him.
Police also released a photo of the pistol it said was used by the attacker.
Israel’s MADA rescue service said the dead included a 70-year-old woman. Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital later said a 15-year-old boy was recovering from surgery.
The bloodshed was the deadliest on Israelis since a 2008 shooting killed eight people in a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Given the location and timing, it threatened to trigger a tough response from Israel.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant scheduled a meeting with his army chief and other top security officials.
Overnight Thursday, Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, with all of them either intercepted or landing in open areas. Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on targets in Gaza. No casualties were reported. Earlier in the day, Gallant had ordered Israel to prepare for new action in Gaza “if necessary.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Friday’s shooting. In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said the attack was “a revenge and natural response” to the killing of nine Palestinians in Jenin on Thursday.
At several locations across the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinians gathered in spontaneous demonstrations to celebrate the Jerusalem attack, with some coming out of dessert shops with large trays of sweets to distribute. In downtown Gaza City, celebratory gunfire could be heard, as cars honked and calls of “God is great!” wafted from mosque loudspeakers. In the West Bank town of Jericho, Palestinians launched fireworks and honked horns in celebration.
The attack escalated tensions that were already heightened following the deadly military raid Thursday in the West Bank town of Jenin — where nine people, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman, were killed. It was the deadliest single raid in the West Bank in two decades. A 10th Palestinian was killed in separate fighting near Jerusalem.
Palestinians had marched in anger earlier Friday as they buried the last of the 10 Palestinians killed a day earlier.
Scuffles between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters erupted after the funeral for a 22-year-old Palestinian north of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank, but calm prevailed in the contested capital and in the blockaded Gaza Strip for most of the day.
Signs that the situation was calming quickly dissolved with the east Jerusalem shooting. Israel’s opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, called it “horrific and heartbreaking.”
Neve Yaakov is a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as a capital of their future state.
There was no immediate response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Blinken’s trip is now likely to be focused heavily on lowering the tensions. He is likely to discuss the underlying causes of the conflict that continue to fester, the agenda of Israel’s new far-right government and the Palestinian Authority’s decision to halt security coordination with Israel in retaliation for the deadly raid.
The Biden administration has been deeply engaged with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, underscoring the “urgent need here for all parties to deescalate to prevent the further loss of civilian life and to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank.”
While residents of Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank were on edge, midday prayers Friday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, often a catalyst for clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, passed in relative calm.
Both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited so as to prevent growing into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks. Jenin, which was an important a militant stronghold during the 2000-2005 intifada and has again emerged as one, has been the focus of many of the Israeli operations.
Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to leading Israeli rights group B’Tselem. Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed.
Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, warned that “the Israeli escalation in Jenin is dangerous and disturbing and undermines international efforts to advance the priority of the peace agenda.” The UAE recognized Israel in 2020 along with Bahrain, which has remained silent on the surge in violence.
In the West Bank, Fatah announced a general strike and most shops were closed in Palestinian cities. The PA said Thursday it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship, and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure.
The PA has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp.
Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want those territories to form any eventual state.
Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.