Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip claimed responsibility today for a militant attack on a Jerusalem rabbinical seminary that killed eight Israelis.
A Hamas radio presenter said the group's military wing had "promised a jolting response" to this week's violence in the Gaza Strip in which more than 120 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, many of them in the northern Gaza town Jebaliya.
The radio referred to the Jerusalem attack as "the fruits of what happened in Jebaliya" and called on believers to "celebrate this victory against the brutal enemy."
The announcement came as thousands of mourners marched in funeral processions for the dead students, Israel slapped a closure on the West Bank and an Israeli official indicated that fledgling peace talks with the Palestinians would go on despite the violence.
Israel will push ahead with talks "so as not to punish moderate Palestinians for actions by people who are not just our enemies but theirs as well," the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the government had yet to make an official announcement.
The attack yesterday was the second crisis to hit the fragile talks this week. Earlier in the week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended negotiations because of a spike in violence in the Gaza Strip, but later backed down under pressure from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in the region to push the talks forward.
Today, thousands of Israelis gathered outside the bullet-scarred seminary to begin funeral processions for the students. A bearded rabbi recited Hebrew psalms line by line, the crowd repeating after him, in memory of the dead students, one of them 26 years old and the rest teenagers between ages 15 and 19. People packed nearby balconies to observe the ceremony, after which the bodies were to be taken for burial.
The seminary's library was crowded for a night-time study session when the Palestinian opened fire. Students scrambled to flee the attack, jumping out of windows, and holy books drenched in blood littered the floor. It was the first major attack in Jerusalem in four years, and the deadliest incident in Israel since a suicide bomber killed 11 people in Tel Aviv on 17 April 17, 2006.
The shooting came on the heels of a surge in fighting between Israelis and Gaza's Hamas rulers that killed three Israelis and 120 Palestinians, roughly half of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials. The violence continued today, when the body of a 40-year-old militant was brought to a hospital in northern Gaza. Medics said they had been told he was killed by Israeli tank fire. The army said it was unaware of the incident.
For the most part, however, Gaza was quiet today.
It wasn't clear if Israel would respond with more military operations, though Hamas' claim of responsibility made that seem more likely.
An Israeli government official urged the moderate Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank to do more to rein in militants, which he said was a requirement for successful peace talks.
"Talks will go nowhere unless we get the issue of terrorism under control. If we have talks on Monday and bombs going off on Tuesday, talks will become meaningless," said Mark Regev, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman.
Regev said that even though the attacker was from east Jerusalem, under Israeli sovereignty, the shooting had almost certainly been organised in the West Bank. He 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 attacker was Alaa Abu Dheim, a 25-year-old from the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabel Mukaber, according to his family, who set up a mourning tent outside their home and hung green Hamas flags along with one yellow flag of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
His family said several relatives had been taken for questioning by Israeli police. They described him as quiet and intensely religious, but said he was not a member of a militant group and had planned to get married in the summer.
Abu Dheim had been transfixed in recent days by the news from Gaza, said his sister, Iman Abu Dheim. "He told me he wasn't able to sleep because of the grief," she said. His family last saw him when he left for evening prayers yesterday, she said.
"We are proud and happy, and everyone in Jabel Mukaber is proud of him," said a cousin, who identified herself as Umm Fadi.
Israeli police confirmed the attacker was from Jabel Mukaber in east Jerusalem, where Palestinian residents hold Israeli ID cards that give them freedom of movement in Israel, and had worked as a driver. Several residents of Jabel Mukaber said Abu Dheim had been a driver at the seminary he attacked, but neither his relatives or police would confirm that.