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Terror in Jerusalem

by: Roy Eitan - Last updated: 2008-03-07

Yeshivat Mercaz Harav attack

Yeshivat Mercaz Harav attack

While Israel's eyes were focused on the security threat from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, terrorism struck in the heart of the Jewish state.

A gunman stormed into the Yeshivat Mercaz Harav complex in west Jerusalem late Thursday, mowing down students who had gathered in the dining room for the traditionally intensive pre-Shabbat classes.

Medical officials put the death toll at eight, with eight wounded, several critically.

The gunman, who was not immediately claimed by any Palestinian faction, was killed by an Israeli army officer, according to media reports.
"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 the way forward after a surge of fighting in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli ground sweep against Hamas rocket crews that ended Monday killed dozens of Palestinian civilians, drawing vows of revenge.

Israel said it would continue with US-backed peace talks with the Palestinians despite the yeshiva shooting.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended the talks in solidarity with besieged Gazans, and Olmert has spent the week seeking a way to restart them.

"These terrorists are trying to destroy the chances of peace, but we certainly will continue the peace talks," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.

Abbas condemned the yeshiva shooting.

"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," said the president’s aide, Saeb Erekat.

President Bush said the "barbaric and vicious attack on innocent civilians deserves the condemnation of every nation." The U.S. leader further said he told Olmert that "the United States stands firmly with Israel in the face of this terrible attack."

Should it emerge that Hamas mounted the yeshiva attack, it could force Olmert finally to accede to Israeli hawks' calls for an invasion of Gaza -- the Islamic faction's heartland -- in which the regime would be toppled by force.

Should the claim of responsibility be from Al-Aksa Brigades, which is nominally loyal to Abbas' Fatah faction, the Palestinian Authority president will come under unprecedented pressure to order a crackdown that he may be unwilling or unable to deliver.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's affiliated Al Manar television station reported that a group named for Imad Mughniyeh, the terrorist group's operational leader assassinated in Damascus last month, claimed responsibility. Hezbollah blamed Israel, although there is no evidence tying Israel to Mughniyeh's killing.

Two terrorism experts differed on the claim.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser to the Israeli government, said it was credible, noting reports that the Lebanese terrorist group had long 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 such attacks are often planned well in advance.

"It doesn't mean it's true, it means that it's being carried out in the name of Mughniyeh," a tactic terrorists often use to attract publicity to their attacks, Levitt said.

Levitt, who has held anti-terrorism roles at the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, said the likelier culprits were Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Mercaz Harav is the ideological seedbed for Israel's national religious movement, which combines Orthodox piety with pioneering Zionism. Many of the yeshiva's alumni have gone on to top posts in politics and the military.

Witnesses reported blood splashes on the pavement outside the seminary, where anxious relatives milled among ambulance staff and security forces.

Many of the terrorists' victims were said to be minors, as Mercaz Harav combines a religious academy for high-schoolers with a seminary for older men.

Jerusalem bore the brunt of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign of 2002 and 2003, but since then effective Israeli countermeasures have largely stemmed the bloodshed in the capital.

Many Jerusalemites have voiced exasperation at the slow pace at which the West Bank security fence is going up in the city due to bureacractic holdups and legal challenges by Palestinians who stand to lose land to the project.

"This tragedy," Lupolianski said, "shows the enormous need to attend to the fence."

(c) JTA