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Three Americans Among Four Rabbis ‘Slaughtered’ in Jerusalem Synagogue

Why Do Jews and Muslims Keep Fighting Over Jerusalem Holy Site? 0:44

JERUSALEM — Two Palestinians stormed a Jerusalem synagogue, opening fire and using knives and axes to attack Jews praying inside, officials said Tuesday. Four rabbis were killed — including three dual U.S.-Israeli nationals — along with an Israeli policeman, and five other people wounded.

The attackers were later killed in a shootout with police. "Everybody was praying peacefully without any disruptions whatsoever and then all of a sudden the terrorists go into a place of worship and peace and turn it into a killing nightmare," Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told BBC Radio 4.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Human beasts committed a massacre, and they came charged with hatred against the Jewish people and their state.”

Israeli police told NBC News that three of the dead were dual U.S.-Israeli citizens. Britain's Foreign Office confirmed the death of a dual U.K.-Israeli national. Police said the slain included Rabbi Moshe Twersky, the son of Boston-born Isadore Twersky who founded Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies. Rabbi Cary Levine, Rabbi Avraham Goldberg and Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky were also killed, according to an announcement made by the synagogue.

The slain policeman was identified as Zidan Saif, 30. He died later in the evening in a hospital from critical wounds sustained, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Netanyahu vowed to "respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were met by reprehensible murderers." He later ordered the demolition of the attackers' homes although he did not confirm the names of the perpetrators.

Why Do Jews and Muslims Keep Fighting Over Jerusalem Holy Site? 0:44

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, the first time he has done so since a recent spike in deadly violence against Israelis. He also called for an end to Israeli "provocations" surrounding a contested holy site. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri praised it and called for more bloodshed.

Netanyahu blamed the violence on incitement by Hamas and Abbas.

President Barack Obama condemned the attacks. "There is and can be no justification for such attacks against innocent civilians," he said. "The thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the victims and families of all those who were killed and injured in this horrific attack and in other recent violence."

Secretary of State John Kerry earlier described the incident as an "act of senseless brutality" and an "atrocity," adding: "The Palestinian leadership must condemn this."

The rampage took place in the ultra-Orthodox western Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. Witness Akiva Polock was one of the first at the scene. "I arrived to the synagogue and saw a wounded man outside, I started to treat him and suddenly shots were fired at me from inside the synagogue," he told Israel's Channel 2. "I jumped away while trying to pull away the wounded."

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said authorities would "do everything in our power to restore peace and security to Jerusalem." He added: "Jerusalem bows its head in pain and sorrow on this difficult morning. Jerusalem residents peacefully praying ... were slaughtered in cold blood."

John Kerry: 'Synagogue Killings an Act of Pure Terror' 0:55

Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told NBC News that the two attackers were from the neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber in east Jerusalem, which has been the scene of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in recent months.

The attack comes amid spiking tensions in Jerusalem. The weekend death of a Palestinian bus driver worsened tensions in and around Jerusalem. The body of 32-year-old Youssef Ramouni was found hanged in a bus at the start of the route he was supposed to have driven on Sunday, in an area of Jerusalem close to Jewish settlements and Palestinian neighborhoods, according to Reuters. Israeli officials said his death was suicide, but Ramouni’s relatives and other Palestinians say he was killed by settlers.

NBC News' F. Brinley Bruton Jason Cumming, Alexander Smith, Cassandra Vinograd and The Associated Press contributed to this report.