Palestinian gunman kills seven in synagogue attack outside Jerusalem as West Bank violence spirals

Israeli border police patrol an alley in Jerusalem.
Israeli border police patrol an alley in Jerusalem. Photo credit: Reuters

A Palestinian gunman killed seven people and wounded three others in a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Friday in an attack that heightened fears of a spiral in bloodshed, a day after the deadliest Israeli raid in the West Bank in years.

Police said the gunman arrived at around 8.15 p.m. and opened fire, hitting a number of people before he was killed by police. TV footage showed several victims lying in the road outside the synagogue being tended to by emergency workers.

"We arrived to the scene extremely quickly and it was horrible. Injured people lying on the street," said Shimon Alfasi, from the Israeli ambulance service.

The attack, which police described as a "terrorist incident", underlined fears of an escalation in violence after months of clashes in the West Bank culminating in a raid in Jenin on Thursday that killed at least nine Palestinians.

Police said in a statement that the gunman was a 21-year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem who appeared to have acted alone in carrying out the attack in an area that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war.

It said he had tried to flee by car but was pursued by police and shot dead.

A spokesman for the Islamist group Hamas hailed the action as "a response to the crime conducted by the occupation in Jenin and a natural response to the occupation's criminal actions". The smaller militant group Islamic Jihad also praised the attack without claiming responsibility.

In Ramallah, the largest city in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, news of the attack brought spontaneous street gatherings and outbreaks of celebratory gunfire, while outside the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where some of the wounded were treated, crowds chanted "Death to Terrorists".

In a sign of the potential for further escalation, the Palestinian health ministry said three Palestinians were taken to hospital after being shot by an Israeli settler in an incident near the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

It added that a 16-year-old Palestinian who was shot by Israeli forces in a separate incident on Wednesday succumbed to his wounds.

Following an assessment with security authorities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged people not to take the law into their own hands but said measures had been decided and cabinet would meet on Saturday.

Friday's shooting, which occurred on International Holocaust Remembrance Day during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, was condemned by the White House and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who urged "utmost restraint". It came days before a planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel and the West Bank.

Israel's national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of one of the hardline nationalist parties in Netanyahu's new government, visited the site of the attack, where he was greeted with a mixture of cheers and anger.

"The government has to respond, God willing this is what will happen," he told a waiting crowd.

'Deeply concerned'

Earlier on Friday, militants in Gaza fired rockets at Israel, causing no casualties but drawing air strikes by Israeli jets, which struck targets in the blockaded coastal strip controlled by Hamas.

The months of violence in the West Bank, which surged after a spate of lethal attacks in Israel last year, have drawn fears the already unpredictable conflict may spiral out of control, triggering a broader confrontation between Palestinians and Israel.

The latest season of violence began under the previous coalition government and has continued under Netanyahu's new right-wing administration which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to expand settlements in the West Bank.

Before Friday's shooting, at least 30 Palestinians had been killed so far this year and the Palestinian Authority, which has limited governing powers in the West Bank, said it was suspending a security cooperation arrangement with Israel.

In Jenin refugee camp, a densely packed mass of buildings and alleyways that has been a centre of militant activity and the target of repeated Israeli raids, residents said Thursday's operation had penetrated unusually deeply into the camp.

A two-storey building at the centre of the fighting was heavily damaged and nearby houses were tainted black from smoke. In another area around the camp's community centre, cars had been crushed by Israeli bulldozers used in the operation.

Palestinian officials said CIA director William Burns, who was visiting Israel and the West Bank on a trip arranged before the latest violence, would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday. No comment was immediately available from U.S. officials in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, who returned to power this year at the head of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel's history, said on Thursday that Israel was not looking to escalate the situation, although he ordered security forces to be on alert.