Analysis |

Attack on Worshipers in Synagogue Sets Deadly Precedent

Tuesday's terror attack represents a new type of perpetrator – East Jerusalem residents who know their targets well.

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Casualties being taken away by an ambulance at the scene of Monday's terror attack in a Har Nof synagogue, Nov. 18, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Israelis visiting synagogues in Western Europe for the first time are often astonished by the level of security: private security guards, community volunteers, uniformed police and advanced surveillance systems are the norm. Moreover, in the few Muslim countries with still-functioning Jewish congregations, like Turkey or Tunisia, synagogues operate in fortified compounds.

Less than two months ago, during Rosh Hashanah, the level of police presence around synagogues in North London, apparently motivated by the rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in the wake of the Gaza conflict, was unprecedented. This has all become standard in parts of the world where synagogues have been terrorist targets by Palestinians and Islamist groups since the 1970s. These security measures seem to have worked. The two deadly attacks on Jewish targets in 2012 in Toulouse, France, and earlier this year in Brussels, Belgium, were on a school and a museum respectively, both with considerably less security than nearby synagogues.

The cordoned-off Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem, after a terror attack, Nov. 18, 2014.Credit: Surie Ackerman

In Israel, however, the scene of a plethora of attacks and suicide bombings over the decades, synagogues have not been protected to the same extent as, say, shopping malls and schools. With the exception of a tiny handful of large, well-financed houses of worship, the thousands of small and medium-sized and even big neighborhood synagogues remain wide open. While Israelis are used to having an armed security guard inspect them when entering nearly every supermarket, mall and cinema, there is something jarring to them about restricting entrance to a synagogue. At one point during the Second Intifada, the police suggested that members place one of their own at the door during the High Holy Days, as deterrence, but the practice did not last for long.

Incredible as it may sound, Tuesday morning's terror attack on the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, in which four worshippers and one police officer were killed by Palestinian terrorists from Jabel Mukaber in East Jerusalem, was the first of its kind in living memory on a local synagogue. There was of course the 2008 attack on the Merkaz Harav yeshiva, which technically also served as a synagogue, not far from today's murder scene. In that attack, eight students were murdered.

The exact number of synagogues in Israel is unknown. Unlike many well-appointed Jewish houses of worship in the Diaspora, most in Israel are small and locally-funded, with many situated in bomb shelters and ground-floor apartments, or in halls rented out by schools and community centers. While some have been in existence for decades, new synagogues are established every week as communities grow or split over arcane disputes. There are thousands of synagogues in Jerusalem alone.

In the wake of Tuesday's terror attack in Har Nof, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef issued an edict saying that prayers must be held only in synagogues with a security guard. However, there is no realistic way that these security measures can be implemented, given the vast amount of synagogues.

It took years and protracted arguments between the various authorities and government departments to secure funding for security guards at all of Israel's thousands of schools, and this massive undertaking is still not complete. Securing all of Israel's synagogues is an impossible task and no congregation is about to give up its location because the chief rabbi, who has a miniscule following, if he has one at all, says so.

No one can say for sure why terrorists had not yet targeted a local synagogue until Tuesday morning's attack. The most plausible reason is that they are less convenient targets than public transport or coffee shops, usually being open just twice a day for an hour or so at a time during morning and afternoon-evening prayers. Also, synagogues afford little cover for terrorists as they would be immediately noticed upon entering. Even in disguise, an attacker who does not know how to conduct himself in a synagogue immediately sticks out like a sore thumb.

In Tuesday morning's attack, one of the terrorists was apparently acquainted with the targeted synagogue as he worked at an adjacent grocery shop. He would have known that at 7 A.M., the synagogue would be crowded, allowing him and his accomplice to quickly move between congregants, hacking away at the worshippers.

E. Jerusalem attackers

The suicide bombers who attacked Israelis relentlessly during the Second Intifada came from towns and refugee camps in the West Bank, and in many cases had not previously visited the locations they targeted. In light of this, the masterminds behind these attacks instructed the suicide bombers to blow themselves up at easily accessible targets in central locations such as on buses and in restaurants and shops.

Recent attacks in Jerusalem, including the spate of vehicular attacks and the shooting of Yehuda Glick, have all been perpetrated by residents of Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods. They were all young men with blue Israeli ID cards who worked near their chosen targets and knew the areas well.

Unlike Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 - when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent Israeli forces into the Palestinian Authority's cities to strike headquarters and facilities of militant organizations - there are no obvious targets for Israel to strike in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Despite statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers laying the blame directly on Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, the Israel Police and Shin Bet security service still believe that the spate of recent attacks in Jerusalem, including Tuesday's attack in Har Nof, were carried out by individuals motivated by growing anger and frustration over the occupation. While said authorities believe that Palestinian militant groups are not explicitly behind the attacks, they do believe that the perpetrators are encouraged by incitement by Palestinian leaders and media, as well as clashes on the Temple Mount and incidents such as the death of a Palestinian bus driver on Sunday night.

The latest crop of terror perpetrators are all men who have lived in Israeli-ruled Jerusalem since birth. If they decide to carry out a massacre in synagogue, they know when and where to do it.

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