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The Marxist-Leninist militants linked to the Jerusalem synagogue attack

Ultra-Orthodox Jews mourn over the bodies of three of the victims of Tuesday's attack on Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in the Ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not clear at present which, if any, Palestinian militant organization was behind Tuesday's attack at an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. The incident led to at least four deaths, including those of three Israeli-American citizens.

But the two men who carried it out are now believed to have ties to the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group. Udai Abu Jamal and Ghassan Abu Jamal, said to be cousins, were shot dead by police after they burst into a synagogue in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, wielding axes, knives and guns. The Islamist group Hamas praised the attack but did not take credit for it. Israeli authorities have authorized the demolition of the assailants' homes in east Jerusalem, a tactic they believe will dissuade other militants.

The PFLP dubbed the attack a "heroic operation," according to Reuters. The latest communique on its English language Web site is dated from Nov. 13; in it, the organization urges an "escalation of uprising" in the West Bank and Jerusalem, a city which has seen a sharp rise in tensions between Arabs and Israeli Jews in recent months.

The group is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other Western countries, but its ideology has very little in common with Hamas, whose jihad against Israel has blown hot and cold over the past two decades. Its legacy is a reminder of the older, secular nature of Palestinian militancy against Israel and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since the 1960s.

The PFLP was founded in 1967 by George Habash, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian animated by the pan-Arabism of then Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and the insurgent socialism that inflamed anti-colonial struggles in many parts of the world at the time. At its peak, the PFLP was one of the leading factions within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, alongside the Fateh party of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, the beleaguered current president of the Palestinian Authority.

The group won notoriety through a string of plane hijackings, as well as bombings and assassinations. In September 1970, PFLP militants went on a spree of hijackings, eventually landing three captured airliners with 310 passengers, including 86 American citizens, on a dusty airstrip in Jordan. After a week-long standoff, the passengers were freed, while the militants detonated the empty jets, an explosive act of agit-prop that brought the Palestinian struggle center-stage.

"Startling footage of the jets' fiery obliteration led the evening newscasts on all three American networks," writes journalist Brendan Koerner in his book, "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking." "The  nation's major newspapers, meanwhile, ran front-page photos of jubilant guerrillas dancing on the planes' blackened wreckage."

The incident precipitated a crackdown by Jordan that drove the PLO out of that country and nearly sparked a regional conflagration with Syria and Israel.

PFLP militants were involved in a number far more grisly attacks in conjunction with Marxist-Leninist allies. In 1972, along with fighters from the Japanese Red Army, they gunned down two dozen people at the international airport in the Israeli city of Lod. Four years later, along with German radicals in the Baader-Meinhof Gang, they hijacked an Air France plane bound for Tel Aviv and diverted to Entebbe, Uganda. A daring Israeli commando raid led to the rescue of most of the hostages (three were killed) and the deaths of all seven hijackers, as well 20 Ugandan troops.

The PFLP's star began to wane with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a firm backer, the advent of the Oslo Peace Process and the emergence of Hamas. Some argue Israel played a role in enabling the Islamists' rise, seeing it as a hedge against the leftist radicalism of other Palestinian factions.

But the PFLP persisted with its activities: in 2001, it assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, an act the organization claimed was revenge for Israel's targeted killing of Mustafa Zibri, who had just succeeded an ailing Habash. Its following leader, Ahmed Saadat, was arrested by the Palestinian Authority in 2002 and still languishes in Israeli prison.

The PFLP has been involved in a number of suicide bombings in the early 2000s, but insist it has now abandoned the tactic. Fighters linked to the organization were among those firing rockets into Israel from Gaza during hostilities earlier this year.

Given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's determination to use a "heavy hand" in reprisal for Tuesday's synagogue attack, it's likely the situation may deteriorate further. The lack of progress in talks between Netanyahu's right-wing government and Abbas's camp has led to many fearing the outright collapse of the two-state solution.

That plays into the rhetoric of groups like the PFLP.

"We do not want more blood, but are obliged to resist," said Leila Khaled, one of the PFLP's most famous hijackers, in an interview earlier this year. "We have the right to live in our homeland. When the Israelis realize that as long as they do not budge this conflict will be endless, they should accept our solution."

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