Israel Mourns Eight Slain Students

Funerals are being held for eight Israeli seminary students who were killed when a Palestinian gunman opened fire in a crowded school library. Video by AP
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 8, 2008

JERUSALEM, March 7 -- The mourners came in the thousands, sobbing and swaying in prayer as the bodies of eight rabbinical students were laid upon a set of long, wooden benches.

Just hours earlier, the students had been sitting on benches as they studied sacred Jewish texts. But a gunman's rampage Thursday night, the first major attack on civilians here in four years, left them dead on the library floor and this city traumatized.

"The murderer did not wish to target them specifically," said Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski, "but rather each and every one of us, each and every resident of the holy city of Jerusalem."

As Lupolianski spoke, a different mourning ceremony unfolded on the other side of the city. The Palestinian gunman, killed by an off-duty army officer's bullet, had lived in East Jerusalem.

At the family's middle-class hillside home, the green flags of the radical Islamic movement Hamas fluttered above more than 100 friends and relatives seated somberly on a backyard patio.

Hamas, which advocates the destruction of Israel and controls the Gaza Strip, immediately praised the attack at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, and on Friday a spokesman asserted responsibility for it on behalf of the group before backtracking and saying that the announcement had been premature.

The seminary, one of the most famous in Jerusalem, is considered the ideological heart of the religious Zionist movement, inspiring Jewish settlement of the West Bank and, before Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005, the Gaza Strip. Palestinians in both territories are fenced off from Jewish areas, a measure deemed necessary by the government to protect Israel and the settlements.

But the fact that the gunman came from East Jerusalem, an area largely on the Israeli side of the barrier, demonstrated that Israel's security dilemma is hardly limited to the occupied territories.

Through war and peace over more than four decades, Israel has fought to keep Jerusalem undivided, even while its population has remained relatively segregated, with a predominantly Arab east and a Jewish west. The result, security analysts said Friday, is that Israel is vulnerable if a Palestinian decides to cross town to attack a Jewish target.

"The arrangement in East Jerusalem is one of the weak points in the alignment against terrorism," said Mark Heller, director of research at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. "Arab residents of East Jerusalem have identity cards and can travel about freely. I don't know what, if anything, can be done about that without tampering with the entire system."

Heller said Israeli policymakers assumed that Palestinians in East Jerusalem would be less likely to carry out attacks because they enjoyed many of the privileges of living in Israel, unlike their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Ghassan Khatib, a professor at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, said Thursday's attack was evidence that Palestinians everywhere are losing faith in the faltering U.S.-backed peace process and are resorting to violence.

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