Thousands Mourn Eight Killed in Attack on Jerusalem Yeshiva

By Roy Eitan, JTA

Published March 07, 2008.
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Jerusalem — Thousands of mourners turned out Friday for the funerals of the eight students, aged 15 to 26, killed in Thursday’s attack at a prominent yeshiva in Jerusalem.

With Thursday’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 on Thursday evening 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.

In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, many Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate news of the attack.

“It’s a tremendously sad day,” Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski said. “There are many dead, and right in the heart 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.

The yeshiva students killed in Thursday’s attacks 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 was reportedly 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.

Thursday’s 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 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.

At the funerals on Friday, Mekaz 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” and said, “The murderer did not want to kill these people in particular, but everyone living in the holy city of Jerusalem.”

The yeshiva is identified with the settler movement, and a number of the victims came from settlements. Funeral processions continued to victims’ hometowns.

Israeli police identified the gunman as a driver for the yeshiva, Ala Abu Dahim, 20, from the village of Jabel Mukhaber, which is near Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Dahim’s family hung Hamas flags outside their home after the attack, according to reports.

Israel said it would continue to pursue U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians despite the attack.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace 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 Thursday’s attacks, “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.

JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

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