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8 killed at Israeli seminary

Times Staff Writer

A man concealing an assault rifle and handgun in a box slipped into a cherished Jewish seminary here and opened fire in the library Thursday night, killing eight people in the deadliest attack in Israel in nearly two years.

Witnesses said the assault lasted more than 10 minutes before a seminary student and an off-duty army officer killed the gunman, identified by police as a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem.

Nine people were wounded in the shooting spree, which felled Orthodox religious scholars at their tables and left trails of blood from the library to a stairwell where some managed to escape. Most of the victims were in their teens and 20s, rescue workers said.

The target of the attack was the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, a Zionist symbol that one rabbi called a “spiritual-ideological power station” allied with the Jewish settlement movement. Settlements are major sources of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, who want the entire West Bank, along with eastern Jerusalem, for a future state.

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“I heard gunshots coming from outside and then the terrorist entered the library,” said a young man identifying himself as Yehuda, one of about 80 students trapped in the library with the killer.

“We took cover behind the bookshelves,” Yehuda told Israel Radio. “He started shooting. I saw people hit and I ran.”

“There were youngsters 16 and 17 years old lying on the floor covered in blood still holding books in their hands,” said Yaron Tzuker, a paramedic.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar television in Lebanon reported a claim of responsibility for the attack by a previously unknown group, the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyah and Gaza. Mughniyah, a top Hezbollah commander, was killed Feb. 12 by a car bomb in Syria that Hezbollah blamed on Israel.

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The Islamic movement Hamas praised the Thursday attack as “heroic” but stopped short of claiming a role in it. In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets to celebrate, firing rifles in the air. A loudspeaker on a Gaza City street echoed the Hamas message: “This is God’s vengeance.”

Hamas and other militant groups had vowed retribution for a recent five-day Israeli army incursion against rocket-launching operations in Gaza that left more than 120 people dead, many of them civilians.

Earlier Thursday, an Israeli soldier was killed when militants detonated a bomb near his vehicle as it was patrolling on the Israeli side of the Gaza border. Israeli airstrikes killed five militants in Gaza during the day.

President Bush denounced the shooting in Jerusalem as a “barbaric and vicious attack” and telephoned his condolences to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the White House said.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose U.S.-backed government in the West Bank is holding peace talks with Israel, joined in condemning the shooting.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on other countries to take a “clear, decisive and uncompromising stand . . . against such terrorism.” It said the negotiations aimed at an accord on creating an independent Palestinian state, a top priority of the Bush administration, would not be disrupted.

Police on alert

Police went on high alert and sealed off Jerusalem’s entrances after the shooting, which brought the bloodshed of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the city after a lull of more than three years.

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The all-male seminary is located in the western, predominantly Jewish part of Jerusalem, which coexists uneasily with eastern Arab neighborhoods that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed.

Not since Sept. 22, 2004, had militants carried out a fatal attack in Jerusalem.

For Israelis, Thursday’s shooting was the deadliest single incident in the conflict since April 17, 2006, when 11 people were killed and more than 60 wounded in a suicide bombing during the Passover holiday in Tel Aviv.

Such attacks killed hundreds of Israelis during a Palestinian uprising in the early part of this decade but declined sharply in recent years as Israel began sealing itself off from the West Bank with walls and fences.

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But Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents have Israeli ID cards that give them freedom of movement in Israel, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli officials still issue frequent “terror alerts” of possible attack on Jerusalem and other cities.

However, Jerusalem Police Chief Aharon Franco said there had been no specific intelligence warning involving the seminary.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the gunman walked unchallenged through the seminary’s main gate and into the ground-floor library shortly after 8:30 p.m. He was described as a tall man with short hair wearing faded and torn blue jeans and a jacket-like vest.

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The seminary’s 300 students, ranging in age from their early teens to mid-20s, were preparing for an evening of celebration anticipating Purim. That festive holiday falls during Adar, the month on the Hebrew calendar that started Thursday and is often marked with fireworks.

That is what many students at the seminary said they thought they were hearing when the gunman opened fire.

“I thought it was firecrackers but then I realized it was too loud,” said Itay Tuchfeld, who was in his room two floors above the library at the time. “I looked out my window and saw someone enter the library with a gun. He was spraying bullets in all directions.”

“I locked myself in my room and called my father, who telephoned the police,” he told Israel Radio.

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Tzuker, the paramedic, arrived during the shooting. He and other witnesses said they heard both single shots and automatic gunfire from inside the building.

“We took cover and the ambulance was hit,” Tzuker said.

Yitzhak Dadon, a student in his 20s, was studying elsewhere in the building when the gunman opened fire.

‘Guys running out’

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“The bursts grew longer, and we understood it was a terror attack,” he told Israel Radio. “We saw guys running out of the side entrance of the library.”

Dadon, who carries a handgun, decided to take action.

He said he stood near a bullet-shattered glass door to the library until the gunman came out shooting wildly. “I fired two bullets at his head,” Dadon said. “He started to stagger and then a guy with an M-16 came and finished off the job. We continued to shoot until our clips were empty.”

The man with the M-16 was identified as an off-duty army officer who lives near the seminary.

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By that time, hundreds of police officers had begun arriving. They surrounded the area and ordered students out of campus buildings, searching for what some witnesses thought was a second gunman.

“I heard shouting that one terrorist was down and there is another one,” Tuchfeld said. “The police started combing the place, going room to room.”

Franco, the police chief, later said that there had been just one assailant. At least six empty bullet clips were found on the floor, police said.

Treating the wounded

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Medics entered the library on the heels of the police and began treating the wounded. One rescue worker said they were abruptly told to leave because police thought the dead gunman was wearing an explosives belt typically used by suicide bombers.

It turned out to be an ammunition belt, police said, and the medics were let back in.

As police held back distraught parents searching for children studying at the seminary, the site became a rallying point for right-wing activists opposed to the peace negotiations. Many shouted, “Death to the Arabs!”

“It’s very sad tonight in Jerusalem,” Mayor Uri Lupolianski said. “Many people were killed in the heart of Jerusalem.”

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem, special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City and Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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