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Associated Press – March 7, 2008
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel on Friday signaled a willingness to move ahead with peace talks despite a deadly attack on a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem.
But a U.S.-backed Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appeared to be in trouble because of the violence, which shattered four years of relative calm in the holy city.
Outside the bullet-scarred seminary, thousands of mourners marched in funeral processions Friday for the eight young students gunned down by a 25-year-old Palestinian man from east Jerusalem whose family said he had been distraught over this week’s carnage in the Gaza Strip.
A bearded rabbi at the seminary, which is a flagship of Israel’s West Bank settlement movement, recited Hebrew psalms as the crowd repeated after him. People packed nearby balconies to observe the ceremony, and then the bodies were taken away for burial. One of the dead students was 26 years old and the rest were teenagers between ages 15 and 19, including an American whose parents moved to Israel in the 1990s.
Concerned about the possibility of more violence, Israel slapped a closure on the West Bank and kept men under 45 from praying at Jerusalem’s main mosque. And in a possible sign that Israel suspects Lebanese guerrillas could have been involved in the attack, Israel sent warplanes flying over Beirut on Friday, according to a Lebanese security official. Israel’s army declined comment.
Despite the bloodshed, an Israeli official said his country would not cut off peace talks with the moderate Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank – an apparent nod to Washington’s insistence that extremist violence not be allowed to derail efforts to forge a deal by year’s end.
Israel will push ahead with the talks “so as not to punish moderate Palestinians for actions by people who are not just our enemies but theirs as well,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the government had yet to make a formal announcement.
It was the second time in just over a month that Israel chose not to halt talks after a militant attack. When a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in the southern desert town of Dimona, killing one woman and wounding 11 people on Feb. 4, Israeli and Palestinian officials went ahead with a planned negotiating session that evening.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas briefly suspended talks this week after more than 120 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli campaign against Palestinian rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip. Abbas later backed down under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice, who called Thursday’s 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. Abbas had condemned the attack.
Egypt, backed by the U.S., is exploring a truce deal between Israel and Hamas that would stop rocket fire on Israel in exchange for an end to Israeli attacks on militants and the resumption of trade and travel from Gaza, where border crossings have been closed since Hamas violently seized control of the coastal strip last June.
Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad traveled from Gaza to the northern Egyptian city of el-Arish on Thursday to confer with senior Egyptian intelligence officials about a possible truce. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch was also in Egypt on Thursday, meeting with that country’s foreign minister and intelligence chief about the Egyptian mediation efforts.
The flurry of diplomacy appeared to reflect a growing understanding that a peace deal between Israel and Abbas’ moderate government based in the West Bank will simply not be possible as long as Hamas is playing the role of spoiler in Gaza.
However, the latest violence undermined ceasefire hopes – and raised the possibility of more harsh Israeli action in Gaza, especially if Hamas indeed was behind the attack on the seminary.
Israeli defense officials would only say that the bomber came from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber. Relatives of Alaa Abu Dheim, a resident of east Jerusalem, said he had carried out the attack and the family set up a mourning tent. Neighbors said Abu Dheim had worked as a driver for the seminary.
It was not clear if any group provided backing for the shooting, and Israeli TV stations said security officials believed he may have acted alone.
However, it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian Jerusalem resident to legally obtain a weapon, raising the likelihood that he received some assistance. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast War, and Arab residents enjoy freedom of movement in Israel, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas radio had on Friday said the militant group took responsibility, but later retracted the report. Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, said the group was not yet taking official credit for the attack, adding to the confusion.
A previously unknown, Lebanese-based group, the “Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh” – after a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Syria last month – claimed responsibility Thursday, the Al-Manar satellite TV station reported. But the claim could not be independently confirmed. Hezbollah has blamed Israel for Mughniyeh’s assassination, and Israel has feared the guerrilla group would carry out a revenge attack.
Abu Dheim’s relatives said they did not know of his plot, but they were not surprised.
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.
Relatives described Abu Dheim as intensely religious, but said he was not a member of a militant group and had planned to get married in the summer.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah flags hung outside the customary mourning tent Friday. Family members said several relatives had already been taken for questioning by Israeli police.
Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told mourners at the seminary that Arabs of east Jerusalem who have been involved in militant activity should be expelled to the West Bank, a move that would strip them of all their rights.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that the shooting had almost certainly been organized in the West Bank. But in a sign of the uncertainty over who was behind the attack, Regev did not point fingers.
“The investigation continues as to who was behind this terrible attack in Jerusalem,” Regev said.
Regev would not confirm that Israel had reached a decision to continue peace talks, but did not deny the other official’s statement that negotiations would go on.
The shooting is likely to increase public pressure on Olmert to react militarily. Palestinian militants from Gaza have repeatedly bombarded southern Israel with rocket fire, and on Thursday, Gaza militants ambushed an army patrol along the Israeli border, killing a soldier.
About 80 students were studying in the library Thursday when the attacker walked through the Mercaz Harav seminary’s main gate and entered, firing with both an assault rifle and pistol, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Witnesses said people were slow to respond, thinking the noise was firecrackers celebrating the upcoming Purim holiday. Officials said the gunman sneaked two guns, including a Kalashnikov rifle, into the building in a box.
Students scrambled to flee, jumping out of windows as the gunman fired. Holy books drenched in blood and pocketed with bullet holes littered the floor. Rosenfeld said at least six empty bullet clips were found on the floor.
A seminary graduate who lives nearby and ran to the scene, along with another man, shot the gunman several times, killing him, police 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.

Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in east Jerusalem and Sarah el Deeb in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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