Eight Jewish students at a yeshiva seminary were shot dead last night by a Palestinian armed with a Kalashnikov AK47 rifle and a pistol in by far the worst attack on Israeli civilians in Jerusalem for more than four years. Six of the rabbinical students were studying in the crowded ground floor library of the MercazHarav yeshiva when the gunman burst in and fired what police said were "tens" of rounds from both weapons.
Two other students were shot dead near the main door of the building in the suburb of Kyriat Moshe. The attacker walked in at 8.40pm as some students were praying after their evening meal. Witnesses said up to 80 had been working in the library. The gunman, whom Israeli officials suggested was from east Jerusalem, shot and wounded nine other students before he was shot dead by an off-duty army officer and two undercover police, who rushed to the scene as the shooting started.
Last night’s carnage follows the recent escalation in violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, and puts the faltering peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who condemned the attack, under further strain.
The Islamic faction Hamas, while not claiming responsibility for the shootings, said:"We bless the operation. It will not be the last." Later, about 7,000 Palestinians marched through the streets, firing guns in the air in "celebration" in rallies organised by several factions, the Associated Press reported.
The Hamas statement drew a swift response from Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He said: "Tonight’s massacre in Jerusalem is a defining moment. It is clear that those people celebrating this bloodshed have shown themselves to be not only the enemies of Israel but of all of humanity." Police forensic experts were still trying to identify some of the bodies at the yeshiva before they were taken away by ambulance. Across the main road from the building, more than 100 angry Yeshiva students and other protesters shouted "revenge", "death to Arabs" and "let the army go into Gaza" – but made no attempt to break through a police cordon holding them back.
The yeshiva, which belongs to the national religious stream of Judaism, teaches students of high school as well as college age. At least one of the wounded is reported to be young as 15. The students were preparing a celebration for the new month on the Jewish calendar, which includes the holiday of Purim. A police spokesman could not confirm a claim by one government official that the dead were mainly aged 15 to 16 and suggested they may have been mainly in their later teens or early 20s. He also refused to confirm reports that the gunman was wearing a bullet-proof vest.
Police and troops, fearing other gunmen were involved, cordoned of the area as they searched the yeshiva room by room, as well as neighbouring houses.
Yerach Tucker, a paramedic, said that when he arrived at the yeshiva there was shooting "even at the paramedics". He added: "There were people crying. When I got to the library, there were dead people lying on the floor. There were books everywhere and some of the dead students were holding Bibles. I have been to many attacks but this was the worst I have seen." Avi Katz, 23, a member of the Israeli rescue organisation Zaka, added: "I saw six bodies in the library. There was a wounded guy still alive and people went to help him. I don’t know what happened to him because I had to go to another room. It was terrible in there. This is the worst thing I have seen."
A Yeshiva student, Mikhail Kollett, 19, said: "We were just in the middle of prayers after eating when we heard shooting. At first I, thought it was firecrackers or someone dropping a table on the floor. But then I saw the police coming and I heard another round of shooting. Then I understood that it was an attack and I climbed out of the window to get out of there." The last serious attack on Israeli civilians in Jerusalem was in February 2004, when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus and killed eight people.
Last night’s shooting came less than 24 hours after a visit by the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice aimed at reviving the peace process. Aryeh Mekel, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, insisted that the talks would continue. But the ministry added in a statement: "Such abominable terrorist attacks must strengthen the free world’s understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat. A clear, decisive and uncompromising stand is necessary against such terrorism."
President George Bush, who telephoned the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to express his condolences, said: "This barbaric and vicious attack on innocent civilians deserves the condemnation of every nation." The British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last night: "The reports of killings at a seminary are shocking. They are an arrow aimed at the heart of the peace process so recently revived. They should and will be deplored by all decent people."