Tuesday morning, half-asleep, I woke up in Jerusalem, glanced at my iPhone and noticed a news bulletin from Fox News – four Israelis had been murdered in a local synagogue.
It was a rude awakening for sure. My heart sank with a sense of horror and dread. The news was terrible, but not at all surprising.
A stew of violence and hatred has been simmering here for weeks.
Rioting explodes nearly every night in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Nearby residents hear the shouting and the shooting. All of us hear the helicopters, circling for hours.
And the savagery has repeatedly spilled over from the mob scenes into the city streets.
In late October, an eager jihadi – who was a member of Hamas –drove his car into a crowd that was waiting to board the light rail tram.
A three-month-old baby was knocked out of her stroller and killed; several others were injured. The driver was shot dead; rioting continued for several nights.
Just days ago, beyond Jerusalem’s city limits, separate deadly stabbings robbed a soldier in Tel Aviv and a young woman from Tekoa of their lives.
This past Sunday night, a Jewish resident, was stabbed in the back with a screwdriver as he was walking home on a city street.
Hamas praised that stabbing, calling it “a natural response to the crimes of the occupation…”
And now this – an exceptionally ferocious attack on a group of devout ultra-Orthodox men during their morning prayers.
Some were gunned down with a shot to the head – others were hacked to death with a meat cleaver. The dead were found in pools of blood.
Besides the four fatalities, eight others were injured – four of them seriously. Eyewitnesses said that some of the survivors were badly maimed.
One emergency first responder described the scene inside the synagogue: "… to see Jews with beards and pe’ot (sidelocks) wrapped in teffilin (phylacteries), surrounded by puddles of blood – I do not remember seeing such a sight…This is not a cliché, it’s the reality," he continued. "We have only seen things like this happen in the Holocaust.”
News sources reported that in Gaza, the murders were heralded from minarets, and candies were passed out on the streets by children.
The Hamas response was quick and also celebratory: “The operation in Jerusalem is a response to the murder of the martyr Yusuf Ramouni and to the series of crimes by the occupier at Al-Aqsa and Hamas calls to continue these operations….Hamas calls for more operations like it.”
Yusuf Ramouni, according to an autopsy (at which a Palestinian inspector was present), hanged himself in a Jerusalem bus.
An infuriated mob, however, rejected the autopsy. There were calls for vengeance. Hamas applauded today’s massacre as successful revenge.
But a deeper and more disturbing motive has fueled the recent upheaval. That was summarized by Hamas’s words, “the series of crimes by the occupier at Al-Aqsa.”
In fact, for decades, mob violence and murder in Israel has been incited by accusations that Jews were “storming” the al-Aqsa mosque and defiling what is proclaimed as the third holiest site in Islam.
The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque sit on what is known to Jews as the Temple Mount Plaza. Historically, the first and second Jewish Temples were situated there.
After the 1967 War, for the first time in modern history, the Jews regained access to the Western (Wailing) Wall and the Temple Mount – their holiest site.
Although the Israeli government at that time chose to leave the Mount in the hands of the Islamic Waqf, it has been a flashpoint ever since.
Jews and Christians are forbidden to pray, sing or otherwise worship there. Religious articles such as Bibles or prayer books are confiscated at a checkpoint.
Yahuda Glick, a beloved rabbi who has long sought to restore the right of Jews to pray on the site, is now recovering from an assassination attempt just weeks ago. “You are an enemy of al-Aqsa” his would-be killer declared, then shot him several times at point blank range.
Since 2000, there has been an increasing effort on the part of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other Islamist sources to deny that there ever was a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.
And alongside this “Temple Denial” is the oft-repeated accusation that the Jews are attempting to seize the al-Aqsa Mosque with the intention of building a third Jewish Temple to replace the Muslim shrines.
The accusations are ridiculously false, yet they are endlessly reiterated across the Middle East in news stories, mosque sermons and declarations from various terror groups.
And now there’s more.
Journalist Ruthie Blum, reported today that the Islamic State (ISIS) has been using the al-Aqsa libel to recruit fighters into their organization.
“According to the online news site Vocativ,” she wrote in Israel’s Hayom, “a campaign called ‘Recruitment for Al-Aqsa’ has been circulating on Islamic State social media sites.
“‘The goal of this holy campaign is to prepare suicide and jihadi attacks against the Jews … in order to implement the law of Allah and liberate the captive Al-Aqsa mosque from the hands of the filthy Jews…’
Blum wrote, “When Vocativ called the number listed on the posting, a man answered and said that the aim is to recruit 50 fighters and pay each one a $2,500 stipend in cash, to cover the cost of a Kalashnikov rifle, magazines and bullets.’”
I asked Ruthie Blum for her reaction to today’s murders in light of ongoing al-Aqsa accusations and ISIS’s recruitment efforts.
“We know that there are ISIS cells in the Sinai,” she said, “and there have been ISIS flags seen in Jerusalem. And now there is a social media campaign to recruit young Muslims into ISIS to participate in the so-called liberation of the Al Aqsa Mosque.
“This has become a magnet for angry young men, and the impetus for jihad across the Middle East and even globally.”
Tuesday’s synagogue attack was a gruesome bloodbath, and like many other recent incidents, it involved the use of knives and meat cleavers.
Will an urgently needed Israeli crackdown on terrorism put a stop to this outrageous brutality?
Or will ISIS beheadings soon be broadcast from Jerusalem?
Lela Gilbert is author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians." She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.