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Bloodiest Synagogue Massacre Since Nazi Era: Abu Nidal Gang Tagged As Killers of 21 Sabbath Worshipp

September 8, 1986
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The machine gun and grenade attack by two Arab terrorists on the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. Saturday morning, which took the lives of at least 21 Sabbath worshippers and wounded four, bore the stamp of the Abu Nidal gang, a dissident faction of the PLO based in Syria, according to experts on international terrorism in Israel and other countries.

Premier Shimon Peres, expressing outrage and revulsion at what was probably the bloodiest synagogue massacre since the Nazi era, vowed on an Israel television interview Saturday night that “We will not rest until we cut off this murderous hand.”

He added that “whoever hesitates about American responses or Israeli responses can now learn a lesson,” a reference to the U.S. bombing of Libya last April in retaliation for terrorist acts against American nationals.

Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir declared that “Israel has to constantly conduct an aggressive war against all the terror organizations in every place and at every time to prevent them from carrying out beastly attacks like this one.”

In Washington Saturday, State Department spokesman Bruce Ammerman declared, “We condemn this cowardly attack and deeply deplore the terrible loss of life which resulted from it.”

Israeli sources saw a common anti-Israel thread linking the Istanbul outrage with the attempted hijacking of a Pan American 747 jet at Karachi airport Friday which resulted in the death of 16 passengers and more than 100 injured. The hijackers, they noted, demanded to be flown to Cyprus to effect the release of three Palestinian terrorists imprisoned there for the murder of three Israelis on a yacht in Larnaca a year ago.


The Neve Shalom Synagogue, an old Sephardic congregation in the city’s Beyoglu quarter, had been closed for some time for repairs. The Saturday morning services marked its re-opening. The two assailants reportedly gained entrance by posing as television cameramen assigned to cover the event for Israel television. One of them spoke Hebrew to a guard.

According to eye-witness accounts, once inside they barred the heavy gates and opened fire on the congregants with machine guns and hurled grenades. Rafi Saul, 17, who had been worshipping with his father, told reporters later that after gunning down most of the 30 people in the synagogue, the attackers poured gasoline over the dead and dying and set them afire. The terrorists then blew themselves up with grenades.

Saul said he escaped by pretending to be dead. His father was killed by gunfire. Four women in the women’s gallery were injured by flying splinters.

Radio Istanbul quoted eye-witnesses as saying dozens of people, haggard, in shock and bleeding, ran into the street calling for help. Ambulances and police cars reached the area 10 minutes after the alarm was sounded.

Turkish officials contacted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from Paris said this was because the narrow lanes of the commercial quarter were crowded with pushcarts and shoppers at the time.

The death toll would have been much higher if a Bar Mitzvah planned for Saturday had not been postponed at the last minute.

The victims will be buried at a collective funeral, probably on Wednesday. Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Yosef Burg, will represent his country. The governor of Istanbul province, Nevat Ayaz, said after a meeting with Turkey’s Chief Rabbi, David Asseo, that the services would be held in the Neve Shalom Synagogue.


According to Turkish officials, the killers shouted “Jihad” (holy war) as they opened fire on the worshippers. The officials suggested that the terror squad might have belonged to the Islamic Jihad, a gang controlled by the extremist Lebanese Shiites linked to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) which has been responsible for murderous attacks in Lebanon over the past two years.

A Shiite group in Beirut–calling itself the “Islamic Revenge” claimed responsibility for the synagogue attack in revenge for Israeli attacks on Lebanese villages. Another unknown group calling itself the “Palestine Revenge Organization” also claimed responsibility.

But Israeli sources pointed to Abu Nidal who is backed by Syria and Libya. During the past six years his terror squads carried out fatal attacks on the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris, the main synagogue in Rome and synagogues in Vienna and Antwerp. They also attacked a Jewish restaurant in Paris and a movie house there during a Jewish film festival.

Reports from Istanbul Saturday said seven rabbis were among the victims, also two cantors and three tourists from Iran. Another report named an Israeli rabbi, Raphael Nesin, as a victim.

But Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress who was recently in Turkey, said on a television interview Saturday that he had ascertained by telephone from Istanbul that no rabbi was killed.


The attack shocked Turkish officials. The first to reach the scene, the Deputy Governor of Istanbul, Hassan Ali Ozer, called the spectacle “awful.” Case-hardened policemen were sickened by the sight of two dozen dead and wounded, many wrapped in prayer shawls, lying in inch-deep pools of blood.

Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, who called his Cabinet into special session, issued a statement in Ankara deploring “this heinous act in a place of worship.” He said “All citizens of Turkey are under the protection of the State, irrespective of their religion, language or race.”

He added, “We share as a nation the grief and pain of all the families of our fellow citizens who have died because of this odious assault and express our deepest sympathy to them.”

Israel’s Charge d’ Affaires in Ankara, Yehuda Millo, said: “This outrageous and cowardly attack on Jewish worshippers … only goes to show the nature of the barbaric perpetrators and the organizations the free world is facing. It also proves that the only way to combat international terrorism the way Turkey and Israel are doing is through resolve, firmness and determination.”


In the aftermath of the attack, police-swarmed through the streets of Istanbul conducting identity checks. Key buildings, including the Israeli Consulate General, were placed under heavy security guard.

Extra police also patrolled Ankara which has one synagogue and a heavily fortified Israeli legation. Both were surrounded by guards. Two synagogues in Izmir were also under police protection.


There are 25,000 Jews in Turkey, some 20,000 in Istanbul and the rest in Izmir, Ankara, Edirine and Adana. Virtually all are Sephardic, descendants of Spanish Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

The community consists mainly of businessmen, professionals, doctors, lawyers and scientists who have played an important role in Turkey’s economic life. Since the military coup six years ago, many Jewish institutions were revitalized.

In May 1984, Zeki Dushi became the first Jew in over 20 years elected to the Istanbul district council. Jews are allowed to attend Jewish meetings abroad. A Jewish delegation from Turkey was present at the recent Geneva meeting of the World Jewish Congress European branch.

Apart from Egypt, Turkey is the only Moslem nation to have full diplomatic relations with Israel. El Al. Israel’s national airline, has direct flights from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. There are also maritime and commercial links between the two countries and they cooperate in many sectors.

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