Neighbors of the Mercaz Harav seminary in Jerusalem at first thought the noise was the popping of firecrackers for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim. But it was gunfire and, in fact, the deadliest terror attack in the city in the last four years.
A Palestinian armed with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire on a dining room full of Jewish religious students on Thursday night, killing eight and wounding eight others. Police officials say that the unnamed assailant, believed to be from Jbel Mukabar village in East Jerusalem, arrived at the seminary carrying a large box. Police told TIME that the terrorist walked into the unguarded seminary, up two flights of stairs to the library, where hundreds of male students, many of them teenagers, were having a celebratory feast. The intruder then pulled his weapon out of the box and began spraying the room with bullets. Eyewitnesses told police that students tried hiding under tables and behind bookshelves. But as the students began to scatter, he hunted them down, killing each victim, one by one, with shots to the head at close range.
Police say that, finally, a reserve paratrooper living next to the seminary and two detectives burst into the library and shot the attacker dead. "The terrorist came to the entrance and I shot him twice in the head," the paratrooper reportedly said. By late Thursday evening, no Palestinian militant group had yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
In Gaza, news of the seminary killing was greeted with celebratory gunfire, cars honking their horns, and people passing out candy in the streets. Sami Abu Zuheri, a spokesman for the Hamas militant group, said: "This martyr attack was in response to the Israeli assault on Gaza." Last week, more than 110 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli offensive aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. Three Israelis also died during the fighting.
Unlike most Palestinian terrorist attacks, intended to cause the highest number of casualties, usually in cafes or bus stations, Thursday's attacker chose a highly symbolic target. Mercaz Harav seminary is the birthplace of the Jewish religious nationalist movement, which is behind the push to build Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Now, one senior police officer told TIME, there is concern that some bands of armed settlers may take revenge against nearby Arab villages.
The same source said that on Thursday night, Israeli police received a credible tip that a Palestinian suicide bomber, possibly from Islamic Jihad, was trying to enter Jerusalem, and were frantically searching for him, mounting checkpoints on the roads in from Bethlehem. But police are not sure if the would-be suicide bomber was connected to the seminary rampage.
Israeli authorities are waiting for more evidence before determining whether the seminary attacker was acting alone or, more likely, was dispatched by a militant group on a suicide mission. One police official told TIME that "based on the kind of weapons he was carrying, we think he was part of a terrorist cell and that it was a well-organized attack." In either case, it is doubtful that Israel will let these killings go unpunished, which will have the consequence of sending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into yet another downward spiral. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned the seminary massacre. To avoid riots in Jerusalem, police have banned all Muslim worshippers under the age of 45 from attending the Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount.
The fate of the U.S. sponsored peace initiative, which aimed to give the Palestinians an independent state by the end of this year, had already been de-railed by the fighting in Gaza, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had flown to Israel to try to jump-start the process, returned to Washington with only the vague promise that Palestinians might resume talks with the Israelis, nothing more. Now, after the Jerusalem killings, peace prospects look even dimmer.With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem