Grief and anger at site of synagogue attack in Jerusalem
Sifting through construction debris on the traffic intersection in occupied East Jerusalem where seven Israelis were killed by a Palestinian gunman on Friday night, three emergency response volunteers wearing plastic gloves and hi-vis vests scraped up handfuls of blood-stained earth, placing it in a bag.
After sunset on Saturday, the end of Shabbat, they had arrived equipped with torches, trowels and putty knives. Their task was to ensure every drop of spilled blood was collected for proper Jewish burial.
Members of the local ultra-Orthodox community looked on as the men worked beneath the red flash of police and ambulance sirens. Some people sang, prayed and chanted “death to terrorists”. A group of children lit memorial candles arranged in the shape of a menorah.
On Friday evening, a Palestinian identified as 21-year-old Alqam Khayri had driven to Neve Yaakov, a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the Palestinian side of the holy city, and proceeded to shoot at passersby outside a busy synagogue before he fled and was shot dead by police. Among his victims were a 14-year-old boy, a 68-year-old Ukrainian woman and a married couple in their 40s who rushed to the scene to help after hearing gunshots and screams. Another three people remain in hospital.
The attack was the worst committed by a Palestinian against Israelis since 2008, and came in the midst of an escalating week of bloodshed that has left 20 people dead – Palestinian and Israeli.
For many Israelis, the harrowing scene in Neve Yaakov has brought back memories of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which claimed about 1,000 Israeli and 3,500 Palestinian lives in the 2000s. It has also exacerbated fears that a nearly-year-old wave of violence raging in the north of the occupied West Bank is on the verge of engulfing other areas.
“We came to the area immediately when we heard there was an attack but Eli was missing. We didn’t find out until very late at night at the hospital that he died,” said Merav Kenan, a friend of Eli Mizrahi, who was shot at point-blank range while trying to calm the gunman. Mizrahi’s wife, Natali, was shot in the back while giving him CPR, and died after being taken to hospital.
“He was a good man and he was brave. It’s an awful day,” Kenan said.
No Palestinian faction has claimed responsibility for the attack, and it is believed Khayri acted alone, although the considerable skill he displayed with a weapon has led investigators to believe he received firearms training.
He had no security record, and his motives remain unclear, but Hebrew and Arabic media reported that the East Jerusalamite, who like most other Palestinians in the city held an Israeli residency permit but no citizenship rights, was named after his grandfather who was murdered by an Israeli settler in 1998.
A suspect in the case, who was never charged, was represented by the lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir. As of last month, Ben-Gvir, a far-right extremist, is Israel’s national security minister, an important cabinet member in the most hardline administration in the country’s history.
The new government has already promised a raft of punitive measures against Palestinians in response to Friday’s attack, and to a shooting on Saturday in which two people were injured. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he would pursue sanctions against families of terrorists and present steps this week to “strengthen settlements” – moves which are both illegal under international law.
It is unlikely, however, that these actions will be enough to satisfy the rightwing Israeli public, Netanyahu’s voter base. On Saturday night, grief in Neve Yaakov was suffused with anger: young men present at the vigil called for the attack of Arab neighbourhoods, while journalists from Israel’s Channel 13 were mobbed by youths who destroyed equipment and shouted “leftists go home”. Precedent suggests that copycat and “price tag” attacks on both sides are likely.
“At first we thought it was gunfire from an Arab wedding. We often hear that in neighbourhoods around here. Then we realised it was closer,” said Berta, 45, who lives in the same apartment building where the Mizrahis lived.
“I saw something like this 30 years ago but I never dreamed it would happen again. I guess it will always be the same,” she said. “There is never peace in this place, and anyone who lives here just has to get used to it.”