Hamas backtracks claim of Jerusalem killings

March 7, 2008 9:26:19 AM PST
Thousands gathered Friday outside a bullet-scarred Jewish seminary in Jerusalem to mourn eight students killed by a Palestinian gunman. Israel slapped a closure on the West Bank and beefed up security around Jerusalem. Masses of mourners marched in funeral processions after a rabbi who recited Hebrew psalms with the crowd repeating them after him.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas militants backtracked on an earlier claim of responsibility for the first major attack in Jerusalem in four years.

The attacker walked through the Mercaz Harav seminary's main gate and entered the library, where witnesses said some 80 students were gathered. He opened fire with an assault rifle and a pistol, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The gunman was shot and killed on the scene.

Israeli officials said the victims were between ages 15 and 19 except one, who was 26. They identified one of the slain as 16-year-old Avraham David Moses, an American citizen whose parents moved to Israel in the 1990s. The State Department confirmed an American was killed.

The attack came on the heels of an Israeli offensive on Gaza that Palestinian officials say killed more than 120. The campaign targeted militants who have been barraging southern Israel with rockets. Four Israelis have also been killed in fighting since last week.

It was not immediately clear whether a militant group had orchestrated the shooting.

Ibrahim Daher, head of Hamas' al-Aqsa radio, said his station put out an earlier claim of responsibility prematurely. Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing, confirmed the group was not taking credit for the attack - at least yet.

"There may be a later announcement ... But we don't claim this honor yet," he said.

The family of Alaa Abu Dheim, a 25-year-old from east Jerusalem, said he had carried out the attack on the seminary, a prestigious center of Jewish studies identified with the leadership of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank.

They said he was not a member of a militant group and described him as intensely religious. He had planned to get married in the summer, the family said.

Abu Dheim had been transfixed in recent days by the news of bloodshed in Gaza, said his sister, Iman Abu Dheim.

"He told me he wasn't able to sleep because of the grief," she said.

Abu Dheim's family set up a mourning tent outside their home and hung green Hamas flags along with one yellow flag of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Family members said several relatives had already been taken for questioning by Israeli police.

Israeli defense officials said the gunman came from Jabel Mukaber in east Jerusalem, where Palestinian residents hold ID cards giving them freedom of movement in Israel, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Some Israeli lawmakers called on their government to break off peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' moderate, West Bank-based government. But an Israeli official said the negotiations would continue.

Israel will push ahead with talks "so as not to punish moderate Palestinians for actions by people who are not just our enemies but theirs as well," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the government had yet to make an official announcement.

Mark Regev, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, said that the shooting had almost certainly been organized in the West Bank. He would not confirm nor deny that Israel had reached a decision to continue peace talks.

Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told mourners that Arabs in east Jerusalem who have been involved in militant activity should be expelled to the West Bank.

The attack was the deadliest in Israel since a suicide bomber killed 11 people in Tel Aviv on April 17, 2006.

As the gunman fired, students scrambled to flee, jumping out of windows. Holy books drenched in blood littered the floor. Rosenfeld said at least six empty bullet clips were found on the floor. David Simchon, head of the seminary, said the students had been preparing a celebration for the new month of 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.

A seminary graduate who is an army officer and lives nearby rushed into the seminary with his weapon and killed the gunman, Simchon told Israel Radio.

"He saw the terrorist shooting, and with amazing resourcefulness he went into one of the rooms and managed to kill him," he said.

The seminary serves some 400 high school students and young Israeli soldiers, and many of them carry arms.

Jewish seminarians gathered outside the library and screamed for revenge, shouting, "Death to Arabs," while in Hamas-controlled Gaza thousands of Palestinians celebrated in the streets. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called the attack an "act of terror and depravity," told Abbas in a phone call Friday that she would do everything in her power to restore calm as soon as possible, said Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Abbas.

Abbas, who condemned the seminary attack, suspended negotiations this week because of the spike in violence in the Gaza Strip, but later backed down under pressure from Rice, who was in the region to push the talks forward.


Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in east Jerusalem and Sarah el Deeb in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.