Israel's Blood Feud Stirs Again

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Kevin Frayer / AP

Israelis react during a funeral for eight Jewish yeshiva students that were killed in a shooting attack by a Palestinian gunman.

The bodies of the eight Jewish seminarians were draped in prayer shawls and laid out in unvarnished wood coffins. Each was buried with a Torah scroll stained in blood from the Thursday night rampage at their seminary where a young Palestinian, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and two pistols opened fire on 80 students, most of them teenagers, trapped in a library.

Four years had passed in Jerusalem without a major terrorist attack, and its citizens had permitted themselves the luxury of thinking they were safe. Jerusalemites believed they were protected by the security wall, which separates them from the Palestinians, and by an intelligence apparatus that had cracked apart dozens of terrorist cells in the West Bank. But that illusion was demolished when a Palestinian youth, identified by police as Ala al-Din Abu Dhaim, fired more than 500 bullets at the young students gathered for a celebratory feast.

In Jerusalem, Friday was a day of martyrs. Thousands of Israelis gathered for the funeral ceremony at the Mercaz Harav seminary. The dead students were clean-cut, earnest boys who had believed in a religious expression of Zionism — that they had a right to the Biblical land of their forefathers — and were ardently prepared to defend their faith and land. Many seminarians are volunteers in Israel's combat regiments. In eulogies, they were hailed as "angels" and "the holiest of the holies".

Many mourners had driven in from the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. The Mercaz Harav Yeshiva had produced many of the leaders of the settlers' movement, and the attack on the seminary was seen as a calculated blow by Palestinian militants against Israel's most ideologically motivated opponents to a Palestinian state. One senior police officer told TIME that Israeli security forces are on alert in the Palestinian territories for a possible revenge attack by settlers against Arab villages. In the old city, police barred Palestinian men under the age of 45 from attending the Friday sermon at the holy al-Aqsa mosque.

Together with their powerful allies among the right-wing political and religious parties, the religious-nationalist settlers are likely to intensify their opposition to the U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It will now be harder, if not impossible, for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to comply with U.S. and Palestinian demands to close down illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank and freeze the expansion of existing settlements.

Meanwhile, on the slopes of a hill terraced with olive groves east of Jerusalem, funeral preparations were being made by Palestinians for their martyr, Abu Dhaim, the quiet and religiously minded 25-year-old who appeared to his friends to be far more obsessed with thoughts of his upcoming marriage than with a jihadi's paradise. Meanwhile, at the tent for mourners outside Abu Dhaim's home in Jebel Mukabir, the flags of Israel's two greatest enemies, Hamas and Hizballah of Lebanon, rippled in the spring breeze. Overnight, Israeli police arrested Abu Dhaim's male relatives, a few neighbors and his fiancee. But visitors to Jebel Mukabir said there was no denying the pride that some Palestinians felt at Abu Dhaim's bloody handiwork. In Gaza, news of the seminary killings was greeted with celebratory gunfire and candy was passed out on the streets.

A Hamas spokesman there praised the attack but backtracked on earlier claims of responsibility for sending Abu Dhaim on his suicide mission. If it turns out that Hamas was indeed responsible, it would mark the start of a new campaign of terror inside Israel, a likely response to Israel's hammering of Gaza last week, in which 110 Palestinians, half of them civilians, were killed. After Hamas won the January 2006 general elections in the Palestinian territories, it halted suicide bombings, though other Palestinian groups persisted. Many suicide bombers tried to slip into Israel, and most were caught, lulling many Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into thinking that the nightmare of the Intifada bombings was behind them. No longer. With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem