JERUSALEM (JTA) – Thousands of mourners turned out for the funerals of the eight students, aged 15 to 26, killed in an attack at a prominent yeshiva in Jerusalem.
With Thursday evening’s shooting, Palestinian terrorists brought the bloodshed that had been limited to an ever-growing area around Gaza to the heart of the Jewish state.
A Palestinian gunman from an Arab neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem stormed into the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem and mowed down students studying in the beit midrash library.
Eight students, including the son of two American immigrants, were killed and several were critically wounded before an army officer arrived and shot the terrorist dead.
“It’s a tremendously sad day,” Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski said Thursday. “There are many dead, and right in the heart of Jerusalem.”
Eight suspects are being detained on the suspicion that they abetted the shooting spree by Ala Abu Dahim, 20, a driver for the yeshiva, police said Sunday.
In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, many Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate news of the attack.
At the funerals Friday, Merkaz Harav’s director, Rabbi Ya’akov Shapira, delivered a eulogy charging the government with failing to deliver strong leadership and face down a deadly enemy. He called for a “good leadership, a stronger leadership, a more believing leadership.”
“The murderer did not want to kill these people in particular,” he said, “but everyone living in the holy city of Jerusalem.”
The attack took place as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Tel Aviv conferring with his security chiefs on how to move forward after a surge of fighting in the Gaza Strip.
On Monday, the Israeli military concluded an anti-terrorist operation in Gaza against Hamas rocket crews who have been attacking nearby Israeli communities across the border, including Ashkelon, Sderot and Netivot. Hamas said Israel’s operation left dozens of civilians dead and called for revenge.
Hamas at first took responsibility for Thursday’s grisly attack but then retracted that statement. A Hamas official said his group “blesses the heroic operation in Jerusalem.”
A previously unknown group calling itself the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh, affiliated with Hezbollah, also claimed responsibility for the attack. Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus last month by an unknown foe; Hezbollah blamed Israel for his death and vowed to take revenge.
Hezbollah has denied involvement in the massacre.
The yeshiva students killed were Yochai Lipschitz, 18; Yonatan Yitzchak Eldar, 16; Yonadav Chaim Hirschfeld; Neriah Cohen, 15; Roey Roth, 18; Segev Pniel Avihayil, 15; Doron Meherete Trunoch, 26; and Avraham David Moses, 16. Moses reportedly was the son of two American immigrants.
After the shooting, anxious relatives of the students rushed to the yeshiva and milled among ambulance staff and security forces. Inside, once the dead and injured had been removed, rescue crews struggled to clean up blood-splattered floors and bookcases. Volumes of Talmud and other religious books were drenched in blood.
The shooting marked the first terrorist attack in Jerusalem in four years, and the deadliest attack in Israel in nearly two years. Jerusalem bore the brunt of a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign in 2002 and 2003, but since then Israeli countermeasures largely stemmed the bloodshed in Israel’s capital.
The scene of mayhem and carnage shocked students and teachers at Mercaz Harav, an ideological seedbed for Israel’s national religious movement. Founded in 1924 by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the flagship yeshiva at the entrance to Jerusalem combines Orthodox piety with pioneering Zionism. Many of the yeshiva’s alumni have gone on to top posts in politics and the military.
The yeshiva is identified with the settler movement, and a number of the victims came from settlements. Funeral processions continued to victims’ hometowns.
Olmert said the attack was a deliberate ideological blow to Israel.
“The attacker didn’t come to Mercaz Harav yeshiva by chance. It was not a place the killer just happened upon while looking for would-be victims,” he told his Cabinet in broadcast statements Sunday, calling the seminary “the flagship of national religious Zionism.”
Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor who after joining the government angered many religious Zionists by arguing that the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank should be ceded to the Palestinians, said Israeli national outrage at the gun attack transcends politics.
“The yeshiva is a special place in Jerusalem,” he said. “I know the yeshiva and its students well, and Israel has great appreciation for it. Regardless of any differences of opinion, we are all part of this pain.”
Dahim, the gunman who ravaged the yeshiva, lives in the village of Jabel Mukhaber near Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. His family hung Hamas flags outside their home after the attack, according to reports, but took them down late Friday. According to the Israeli media, they had been warned by the security services that flying the colors of the Jewish state’s enemies could invite vigilante attacks.
Family in Amman tried to set up a traditional Muslim mourning tent in his honor, but Jordanian police closed down the tent, deeming the ceremony inappropriate, Israel Radio reported Saturday.
Given the speculation that Dahim operated on behalf of Hamas or Hezbollah, the Shin Bet security service has slapped a gag order on the investigation.
According to media reports, the suspects being held for possibly abetting the shooting are fellow Arabs from east Jerusalem and may include members of Dahim’s family, which is said to support Hamas. Though Dahim may have acted alone, it is possible that some of his friends or relatives knew of his intentions and failed to tell authorities.
Despite the attack, Israel said it would continue to pursue U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended the talks after Israeli troops moved into Gaza a week ago. But after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice this week, Abbas agreed to resume talks, though he did not specify a timetable.
After the shooting, an aide to Abbas, Saeb Erekat, said, “President Mahmoud Abbas condemns the attack in Jerusalem that claimed the lives of many Israelis and he reiterated his condemnation of all attacks that target civilians, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis.”
The U.N. Security Council debated a resolution condemning the attack, but passage was blocked by Libya, a temporary council member, which refused to pass any resolution that did not also include language condemning Israeli actions in Gaza.
Condolences poured into Israel from around the world, including from the U.S. president.
The “barbaric and vicious attack on innocent civilians deserves the condemnation of every nation,” President Bush said. “The United States stands firmly with Israel in the face of this terrible attack.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said after the attack, “These terrorists are trying to destroy the chances of peace, but we certainly will continue the peace talks.”
Experts in Israel debated who was behind the yeshiva shooting, differing on whether the Hezbollah-related group could have organized the attack.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser to the Israeli government, said it was a credible possibility, noting reports that Hezbollah long has wanted to establish cells in the West Bank.
“This was to be expected,” said Freilich, now a visiting Schusterman scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “If nothing else, Hezbollah has a good record of carrying out their promises.”
Matthew Levitt, a Hezbollah expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Thursday’s shooting does not carry the hallmarks of a Hezbollah operation, which usually is planned well in advance.
Levitt, who has held anti-terrorism positions at the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, said the likelier culprits were Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
If it turns out to have been Hamas, Olmert likely will come under greater pressure to accede to calls for a wide-scale invasion of Gaza to topple the Hamas regime there.
Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.