NEW DELHI: Jerusalem is tense after two Palestinians, armed with meat cleavers and a gun, stormed a Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers, killing four people. Police shot dead the attackers soon after. The victims were three Americans and a Briton -- all with dual Israeli citizenship. The incident has exacerbated tensions in Jerusalem, which has been on edge over the the issue of access to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the city’s most contested holy site.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "respond harshly," calling the attack a "cruel murder of Jews who came to pray and were killed by despicable murderers." The Israeli Prime Minister immediately called for the destruction of the attackers’ homes, as well as the homes of other Palestinians who have been involved in recent attacks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, adding however, that Israel needs to end “provocations” surrounding the Al Aqsa mosque. Hamas, meanwhile, praised the attack.

The attack itself follows a clash between Palestinians and Israeli security forces on Monday, after rumors surfaced that a Palestinian man had been hanged by Jewish assailants. Israel maintains that the death in question was a suicide.

Much of the recent violence stems from contentions over the Al Aqsa mosque -- a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. Last week, Abbas accused Israel of igniting a “religious war” by allowing Jews to visit the site. On the same day, a Palestinian protester was killed in clashes in the West Bank.

A day before that, three Israeli civilians were stabbed in the West Bank and an Israeli soldier was knifed in Tel Aviv. Last week, a Palestinian man killed two people when he plowed his car into a transit stop, the second such incident in many weeks. Police shot the driver dead. The violence, in turn, follows the shooting of a Palestinian-American teen by Israeli security forces, that led to widespread protests.

Clashes have taken place at the holy site itself, with Palestinians alleging an illegal storming of the mosque as right-wing Israelis -- who have recently stepped up campaigning asking for Jews to be allowed to pray at the site -- were accompanied by 300 security forces. Palestinian officials said Israeli forces crossed the threshold of the mosque for the first time since 1967, while Israeli police have denied that they entered the building.

Israel’s handling of the situation has sparked regional outrage. Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an called upon the UN Security Council take action against Israel’s “encroaching actions and violations” in regard to the compound that houses the mosque. Earlier, Jordan recalled its ambassador from Israel in a major blow to the countries’ relations. Jordan linked the unrest to the increase in Israeli settlement construction coupled with increased visits the mosque by Jewish ultra-nationalists under police guard.

Meanwhile, Israel approved plans to build 200 homes in a Jewish settlement neighborhood of annexed East Jerusalem -- an area racked by clashes. "It is a decision which is going to cause great harm,” Israeli city councilor Yosef Pepe Alalu told AFP adding, "This is terrible -- and in the middle of such a sensitive period.”

In fact, the current crisis in the region stems from Israel’s announcement to increase Jewish settlements. Netanyahu, in October, announced that Israel will be fast-tracking plans to build 1060 new apartments in East Jerusalem.

The announcement on settlements was an attempt to address the right-wing lobby in Israel -- specifically the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria and the Jewish Home Party, that have been pushing Netanyahu to speed up construction in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was occupied and annexed in 1967 -- and thereby, outpost construction beyond the 1967 line by Israel is a bone of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and constitutes what most of the world considers illegal settlements.

The United States -- Israel’s strongest ally -- immediately condemned Netanyahu’s announcement, saying it was “deeply concerned.” “If Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokesperson said, adding, “Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”

Palestinian officials reacted to the news with a warning that it could lead to unrest. “We believe such unilateral acts will lead to an explosion,” Jibril Rajoub, a senior figure in Fatah told reporters. “Mr. Netanyahu should not expect a white flag from the Palestinian people.”

A white flag was not waved, and rising tensions prompted Israeli security forces to close the Haram al-Sharif compound that houses the al-Aqsa mosque. The move was described by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a "declaration of war."

The decision to shut down the mosque itself followed a failed assassination attempt on an Israeli-American activist whose organization strives to "liberate" the holy site of al-Aqsa mosque from Islamic "occupation." Israeli security forces then shot and killed a Palestinian man they believed responsible, leading to protests and allegations of indiscriminate killing -- a rouse that the Palestinians have raised repeatedly.

The tension in the region comes on the heels of 50 days of violence that left over 2500 Palestinians dead. Even at the time, as a peace deal was signed between the Palestinians and Israelis, Israel followed it with an announcement that it will be appropriating 400 hectares of land in the occupied West Bank’s Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem, which anti-settlement proponents have termed the largest land grab in 30 years.

In fact, Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank have been termed as an “obstacle to peace” by the US and the European Union, as its in contradiction with the objectives of a two nation solution where occupied West Bank territory is considered Palestinian land.

The issue of outpost construction was a major point of contention in the US brokered peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which eventually failed on account of the unity deal between Hamas and Fatah. In response to the unity deal, Israel had announced that it would approve plans to build 1500 settlement homes in the West Bank.

Reports show that the number of Israeli settlements being constructing in the West Bank more than doubled during 2013. Work began on 2,534 new housing units in 2013 compared to 1133 in the previous year.

Aid groups had pointed to an increase in demolitions and displacement of Palestinian officials since the renewed US-backed peace negotiations began compared with the same period in 2012. The number of demolitions increased by almost half and the displacement of Palestinians by nearly three quarters between July 2013 and the end of the year, said a statement released by 25 aid organisations working in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The aid groups said that of the 663 Palestinian structures torn down last year, the highest number in five years, 122 were built with international donor aid.

Israel had previously announced plans for 382 new homes in the West Bank, following the approval of plans for 272 new homes earlier in January 2014. The approval of plans for 1500 homes was a significant increase, and this announcement to build 1000 new settlements and now an additional 200 in East Jerusalem will further embitter relations, especially as it is indicative that Israel remains disinterested in peace or a long-term solution to the crisis in the middle east.