TEL AVIV — A Palestinian gunman killed at least seven people, including children, during Friday night prayers at a synagogue in East Jerusalem, the latest in a pattern of escalatory violence that has evoked the darkest days of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
At least three others were injured, according to Israeli media, including two who are in critical condition.
The gunman, who has been identified by Israeli police as a 21-year-old Palestinian man from East Jerusalem with no criminal record, is believed to have acted alone. Israeli police said they were searching for the person who drove him to the site.
The mass shooting comes a day after Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians, at least one civilian among them, during a military raid in Jenin, the deadliest single operation in the West Bank in two decades. Militants in the Gaza Strip responded by firing at least 13 rockets into Israel overnight Thursday, prompting Israeli airstrikes on Hamas rocket manufacturing sites, according to the Israeli military. There were no reports of casualties on either side.
Mushir al-Masri, a politician from Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, congratulated the East Jerusalem attacker, saying the shooting was “a quick response to the Jenin massacre, and is evidence of the vitality and readiness of the resistance.”
The violence is the first major test for the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking from the scene of the shooting on Friday, Netanyahu called on Israelis to avoid “taking the law into their own hands. ... This is a time to act with determination but restraint,” he said.
But hours earlier, his far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who began his legal career defending Israeli settlers accused of violence against Palestinians, delivered the opposite message: “Soon we will change the policy for civilian gun owners,” he vowed after meeting with victims’ families at the synagogue. As he drove away, supporters chanted “death to terrorists” and “death to leftists.”
Attacks by Palestinian militants have increased over the past year, with 29 Israelis killed in 2022, according to Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. The deadliest, which took place March 29, saw five people killed in a series of shootings in Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Israeli city near Tel Aviv.
Israeli synagogues have been targeted in the past by militants, including arson attacks in Lod, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan last spring. However, major attacks against worshipers are much rarer.
Two Israeli men were fatally stabbed by a Palestinian man in a synagogue in Tel Aviv in 2015, at the height of what became known as the “knife intifada,” a wave of violence carried out by Palestinian assailants who used household knives and cars to carry out attacks. A year earlier, six people were killed in an attack on Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue, in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, in which the attackers used axes, knives and a gun. That was the deadliest attack in the city since 2008, when seven students were fatally shot at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, a prominent religious school.
Last year, Israeli security forces killed 146 Palestinians in the West Bank and predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem — the highest annual death toll since the United Nations began systematically recording fatalities, in 2005, after the last major Palestinian uprising.
Friday’s killings come as Israeli security officials prepare for Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims, which will overlap with the Jewish holiday of Passover in April and has in recent years been accompanied by a surge in violence.
“Terrorism must not be allowed to rear its head,” tweeted Yair Lapid, head of the Israeli opposition. “We must use a hard hand against it.”
In a statement, the White House condemned the “heinous terror attack,” saying it was “shocked and saddened by the loss of life.”
The escalation comes ahead of next week’s visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has in recent weeks expressed concerns that Netanyahu’s government could further escalate the conflict and risk another confrontation with Hamas in Gaza.
Friday’s shooting took place in a contested area of East Jerusalem, which includes territory Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state. Israel annexed the area after capturing the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. Since then, successive Israeli governments have allowed settlement building across the West Bank and in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Neve Yaakov is a smaller enclave nestled between the much larger settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev and the Palestinian districts of Beit Hanina and Al-Ram. It is on the road between East Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, more than 200,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza City and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.