Across divided Jerusalem, a day of grief
On different sides of this divided city Friday, grieving Israelis laid to rest their murdered sons while a Palestinian family grieved over the loss of the young man who killed them.
Both Israelis and Palestinians seemed shocked and anxious as a result of Thursday night’s bloodshed and the looming certainty of more to come.
Thousands of mourners attended a memorial for the eight Jewish seminary students killed by a Palestinian gunman. In a ceremony broadcast nationwide, the covered bodies of the students, ages 15 to 26, were laid on stretchers outside the library of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.
Mourners wept and rocked back and forth in rhythmic waves of prayer as a succession of grieving relatives and religious leaders paid tribute.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, wept as he spoke. “Dear families, please know that today’s grief is shared and felt by the entire nation who fell as one and whose heart fills with tears over this terrible disaster that has happened to us,” he said.
From there each victim was taken in a procession for burial in his home community.
“God chooses the most beautiful flowers for his garden,” cried Rivka Moriah during the funeral for her 16-year-old son, Avraham David Moses. “God sees Avraham as an angel, and so we should thank him for the 16 years filled with the privilege of raising him.”
Moriah and the youth’s father, Naftali Moses, said they tried calling Avraham after hearing about the attack, but began to worry when neither their son nor one of his friends answered their phones. They later learned that Avraham’s friend had also been killed.
Israeli authorities identified the lone attacker, who was killed at the scene, as 25-year-old Alaa Abu Dheim, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from East Jerusalem. Police raided the Abu Dheim home in the Jebel Mukaber neighborhood within two hours of the gunman’s attack, arresting Abu Dheim’s father and six other male family members. The father was released Friday morning, but several other relatives, including Abu Dheim’s two brothers, remained in custody.
A banner carrying several flags -- those of the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the Palestinian national flag -- hung outside the family’s three-story home. The mood was somber rather than celebratory.
“We’re in shock,” said Eyad Aboul Magd, Abu Dheim’s cousin. “We found out about it from the news. There were no signs at all that Alaa would do this.”
Abu Dheim appeared calm just hours before the shootings, Aboul Magd said. The professional shuttle driver, who was engaged to be married this summer, performed prayers with his family Thursday evening, then left the house after 7.
According to police, a little before 9 p.m., Abu Dheim walked into the Mercaz Harav library, pulled an assault rifle and a handgun out of a box and opened fire. Eight students died and nine were wounded in a 10-minute rampage that ended when Abu Dheim was killed by police officers and an army officer. Officials did not confirm earlier reports that a seminary student had been one of those who shot the gunman.
Abu Dheim, his cousin said, had no strong political or religious leanings. Neighbors in Jebel Mukaber described him as quiet and a bit of a loner without a tight circle of friends.
Some in the Arab world, including top Lebanese Shiite Muslim cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, quickly declared Abu Dheim a hero and martyr.
Aboul Magd said only that his cousin died “an honorable death.” Then he added, “But death is still death. He’s gone.”
Israeli security forces deployed throughout Jerusalem and imposed restrictions on the movement of Palestinians to head off further violence. Police closed all crossing points from the West Bank into Israel and banned Arab men under age 45 from entering the Temple Mount complex to attend Friday prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque.
The killings are certain to bring more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to respond with force. To many Israelis, Thursday’s attack underscored the inadequacy of the government’s response to militant groups. For months it has been obvious that there is little the army can do to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel’s southern communities short of a costly reoccupation of the Palestinian enclave. Now, suddenly, Jerusalem feels vulnerable again.
“A government that cannot protect its citizens can lose its legitimacy,” said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev. “It’s our first obligation and we take it seriously.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the mood among the crowd gathered outside the yeshiva was one of outrage. Demonstrators chanted slogans against Olmert for his willingness to continue peace talks with the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority.
By negotiating over the possible division of Jerusalem while failing to rein in militant attacks, Olmert’s government “is responsible for allowing this horrific night to take place,” declared Uri Ariel to the Haaretz newspaper. Ariel is chairman of the opposition National Union-National Religious Party’s delegation in Israel’s parliament.
Olmert didn’t attend the memorial service, instead sending a low-ranking Cabinet official.
Several speakers at the memorial urged restraint in coming days. Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a former chief Sephardic rabbi, appealed to the students not to carry out acts of revenge.
“God’s vengeance will come swiftly,” he said.
The location of the attack was a particular source of pain and anger amid Israel’s right-wing Zionist camp. Mercaz Harav is considered the flagship seminary of the modern Zionist movement. It helped found the modern Zionist settler phenomenon and has produced a steady stream of military leaders, religious scholars and right-wing politicians.
But beyond the political implications, the killings also conjured memories of the open persecution of the Jewish Diaspora in Europe before Israel existed, said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an independent Jerusalem think tank.
“Murdering unarmed yeshiva students . . . is a reminder of Jewish hopelessness. That’s not supposed to happen in Israel,” Halevi said. “This isn’t Poland or czarist Russia.”
Olmert’s options and decisions may depend heavily on who proves ultimately responsible for the killings. Israeli police said they had found no evidence that Abu Dheim had an accomplice or any connection to a militant organization. Conflicting reports Friday had both Hamas and a previously unknown Lebanese group claiming responsibility.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed Al Manar television station said an anonymous caller had claimed responsibility on behalf of a group called the “Phalange of Free Men of Galilee.” The caller claimed the attack was in retaliation for the assassination of Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyah in a car bombing in the Syrian capital last month.
A Hamas-backed radio station in the Gaza Strip also issued an announcement of responsibility, and Reuters quoted an anonymous Hamas official taking credit for the attack.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri and several other Hamas officials later denied any involvement by the group.
Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux and Sebastian Rotella in Israel and special correspondents Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City, Gabby Sobelman in Israel and Raed Rafei in Beirut contributed to this report.