Source AP ©

Jerusalem massacre - a defining moment

A Palestinian gunman entered the library of a rabbinical seminary and opened fire on a crowded nighttime study session Thursday, killing eight people before he was shot dead, police and rescue workers said. It was the first major militant attack in Jerusalem in more than four years.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip praised the operation, and thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate.

The day's violence, which also included a deadly ambush of an army patrol near Israel's border with Gaza, was likely to complicate attempts by Egypt to forge a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants. The U.S. is backing the Egyptian effort.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the attacker walked through the seminary's main gate and entered the library, where witnesses said some 80 people were gathered. He carried an assault rifle and pistol, and used both weapons in the attack, spraying dozens of bullets. Rosenfeld said at least six empty bullet clips were found on the floor.

Rescue workers said nine people were wounded, three seriously.

"Tonight's massacre in Jerusalem is a defining moment," Israel government spokesman Mark Regev told The Associated Press. "It is clear that those people celebrating this bloodshed have shown themselves to be not only the enemies of Israel but of all of humanity."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the attack. But Regev said the Palestinians must go further and take steps against extremists.

Israeli defense officials said the attacker came from east Jerusalem, the predominantly Palestinian section of the city, Jerusalem's Palestinians have Israeli ID cards that give them freedom of movement inside Israel, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

David Simchon, head of the seminary, said the students had been preparing a celebration for the new month on the Jewish calendar, which includes the holiday of Purim. "We were planning to have a Purim party here tonight and instead we had a massacre," he told Channel 2 TV.

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of the Zaka rescue service, entered the library after the attack. "The whole building looked like a slaughterhouse. The floor was covered in blood. The students were in class at the time of the attack," he said. "The floors are littered with holy books covered in blood."

Witnesses described a terrifying scene during the shooting, with students jumping out the windows of the building to escape.

One of the students, Yitzhak Dadon, said he shot the attacker twice in the head, neutralizing him before a soldier killed the man with an automatic rifle. "I laid on the roof of the study hall, cocked my gun and waited for him. He came out of the library spraying automatic fire," he said.

After the shooting, hundreds of seminary students demonstrated outside the building, screaming for revenge and chanting "death to Arabs."

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, led a prayer session at the seminary after the shooting. Students huddled together, and many sobbed uncontrollably.

The seminar is the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in the Kiryat Moshe quarter at the entrance to Jerusalem, a prestigious center of Jewish studies identified with the leadership of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank. The seminary, founded by the late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook, the movement's spiritual founder, serves some 400 high school students and young Israeli soldiers, and many of them carry arms.

"It's very sad tonight in Jerusalem," Mayor Uri Lupolianski told Channel 2 TV. "Many people were killed in the heart of Jerusalem."

In Beirut, Lebanon, Hezbollah's Manar satellite television station said a previously unknown group called the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh and Gaza was responsible for the attack. The claim could not immediately be verified. Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah terror mastermind, was killed in a car bomb in Syria last month. Hezbollah has blamed Israel for the assassination, and Israel has been fearing a revenge attack.

In Gaza, Hamas stopped just short of claiming responsibility. "We bless the (Jerusalem) operation. It will not be the last," the group said in a statement sent to reporters by text message.

In mosques in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip, many residents gave prayers of thanksgiving - only recited in cases of great victory.

In Jebaliya, about 7,000 Gazans of different factions marched in the streets, firing in the air in celebration, and visited homes of those killed and wounded in the last incursion. In the southern town of Rafah, residents distributed sweets to moving cars, and militants fired mortars in celebration.

The attack came a day after Rice persuaded Abbas to return to peace talks with Israel. Abbas briefly suspended talks to protest an Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed more than 120 Palestinians.

At his West Bank headquarters, Abbas harshly criticized the attack. "The president condemned all attacks that target civilians, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli."

In Washington, Rice said she called Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to express condolences. "The United States condemns tonight's act of terror and depravity," the statement said. "This barbarous act has no place among civilized peoples and shocks the conscience of all peace loving nations. There is no cause that could ever justify this action."

Israel's Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the "abominable" attack and urged the world to rally with it against terrorism. "Israel expects the nations of the world to support it in its war against those who murder students, women and children, by any means and with respect for neither place nor target," it said.

The attack came on the same day as Egyptian officials were trying to mediate a truce between Palestinian militants and Israel. The proposal, backed by the U.S., would stop rocket fire on Israel in exchange for an end to Israeli attacks on militants and the resumption of trade and travel from Gaza.

An Israeli official confirmed Thursday that Israel is open to the idea of letting guards from Abbas' moderate Fatah movement oversee Gaza's borders - one of the main tenets of the truce idea. But the Israeli spoke before the shooting, and it was not immediately known whether the Israeli position would change.

The Egyptian proposal reflected a growing realization that Israel's current policy of blockade and military action has failed to weaken Hamas, which has proven its ability to disrupt a U.S.-sponsored drive to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of the year.

Still, a deal between Hamas and Israel was far from certain, with Israel fearing the militants will use any lull to rearm and Hamas raising tough conditions Thursday, such as a demand for Israel to stop targeting militants in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

Other militant groups are also likely to disrupt any attempts to restore calm. Early Thursday, Palestinian militants set off a bomb on the Gaza border, blowing up an Israeli army jeep and killing a soldier. Late Thursday, Israel said it shot a group of militants trying to plant a bomb in the same area. Palestinian officials said three militants were killed.

This was the first serious attack by Palestinian militants in Jerusalem since a suicide bomber killed eight people on Feb. 22, 2004. There have been several attacks since then, and police and the military say they have foiled many other attempts. Militants have also attacked other targets in Israel. Thursday's shooting was the deadliest incident in Israel since a suicide bomber killed 11 people in Tel Aviv on April 17, 2006.

Between 2001 and 2004, at the height of Palestinian-Israeli fighting, Jerusalem was a frequent target of Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings on buses.

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