JERUSALEM — Israelis and Palestinians expressed fear Wednesday that their decades-old conflict was moving beyond the traditional nationalist struggle between two peoples fighting for their homelands and spiraling into a raw and far-reaching religious confrontation between Jews and Muslims.
The threat — perhaps more accurately the dread — of an incipient but deadly “religious war” was expressed by Muslim clerics, Christian leaders and Jewish Israelis one day after a pair of Palestinian assailants, wielding meat cleavers and a gun, killed five Israelis, including a prominent American Israeli rabbi, in a Jerusalem synagogue.
“All of us are scared that there will be a religious war, that extremists from both sides will start fighting each other,” said Oded Wiener, an Israeli Jew from the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land.
For weeks, Jerusalem has been a center of clashes, protests and deadly attacks that began over one of the city’s major flash points: a contested religious site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Jewish activists have been pressing the Israeli government to insist that Jews be allowed to pray on the raised esplanade, which also harbors the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
In the first and second Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, attacks against Israelis were largely propelled by Palestinian political and militant factions and leaders. These days, security officials say most are carried out by so-called lone-wolf terrorists who don’t belong to any organized group. In the past, Palestinian attackers often made clear that they wanted to end the Israeli occupation of what they consider their lands. Today, some relatives of Palestinian assailants suggest that the attacks are motivated only by perceived threats against al-Aqsa.
In a bid for calm, Wiener and leaders from across the religious spectrum joined in a prayer meeting Wednesday at the synagogue where Tuesday’s attack took place. Wiener said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had pressed for the gathering, which included figures from each of Israel’s minority sects, including the Druze, Ahmadiyya, Circassian and Christian communities, as well as a leader of the Muslim groups in Israel.
But bitterness was also on display in the city. Sheik Mohammed Kiwan, chairman of the Council of Muslim Leaders in Israel, who traveled to Jerusalem from the north of the country, tried to quiet tempers along the street outside the synagogue, where neighbors and friends of those killed had gathered to pray. Young students of yeshivas — Jewish religious schools — confronted him, accusing him and all Muslims of inciting violence to kill Jews.
“We condemn all acts of violence,” Kiwan told them, remaining calm. “This is a house of worship. It is irrelevant if it was a Muslim or a Jew that was killed here.”
“Did you come to apologize? You are raising savages,” one woman yelled from the balcony of her apartment across the street from the synagogue.
Across Jerusalem in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, which rests in a deep valley at the edge of the Old City, Israeli security forces used sledgehammers and explosives to demolish the apartment belonging to the family of a Palestinian who in October used his vehicle as a battering ram at a crowded Jerusalem rail station and killed a 3-month-old Israeli girl in a stroller and a visiting Ecuadoran.
The local imam, Sheik Mussa Odey, predicted that the violence will worsen and said that the seeds of a religious war were sown long ago.
“We have grown to hate each other,” he said.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, said the gory photographs released by the prime minister’s media operation of the slain rabbis wrapped in their religious regalia at the scene of Tuesday’s attack “returns us all to the nightmares of the past.”
Rabinowitz blamed Palestinian leaders for “brazenly and shamelessly lying to them [Palestinians] and trying to bring down on the world a bloody religious war.”
Netanyahu promised Tuesday, after the synagogue attack, that the homes of Palestinians linked to recent attacks on Israeli civilians would be razed. Security forces made good on that order early Wednesday, when squads of police and demolition experts descended on the fourth-story apartment of a Palestinian man involved in the October attack. The attacker, Abd al-Rahman al-Shaludi, was fatally shot by police at the scene.
Israeli police hustled out members of the extended Shaludi family, and they watched from across the street as security forces knocked down walls, smashed windows and doors, and tore up the tile floors. The home-razing tactic was common a decade ago, but Israel has rarely used it in recent years.
“This will stop nothing,” said an uncle, Amer al-Shaludi. “The cycles will go on and on.”
He said the violence was driven not by Palestinian nationalist sentiment but by Jewish activists and Israeli politicians who press for Jews to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque compound.
“It is our soul, it is our religion,” he said. “It cannot be permitted.”
Odey, the local cleric, watched from across the street. Asked whether the demolition would serve as a deterrent to other Palestinians who consider attacking Israelis, he said no.
“How many houses have the Israelis knocked down? Has this prevented a single thing?” he asked. All it does, the imam said, “is make the people more angry.”
At the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned the synagogue killings and urged both sides to end the “spiral of hatred and violence and take courageous decisions for reconciliation and peace.”
But Israel appeared to be moving toward more aggressive actions, which seemed likely to provoke Palestinian outrage and possible backlash.
Israel’s public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, announced that he would “ease restrictions” on Israelis carrying guns for self-defense. He indicated that the rule change could apply to anyone with a gun license — private security guards and army officers, for example — and allow them to be armed even when off duty.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett called on the government to launch a military operation to “go to the source” of terror in the holy city.
“We need to move from defense to attack, like we did in Operation Defensive Shield,” Bennett told Israel’s Army Radio, citing the name for the military campaign waged during the second Palestinian intifada more than a decade ago.
“Go in with border police forces, make arrests, create intelligence channels, stay there on a permanent basis, not just when there’s a terror attack,” he said.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.