A Palestinian gunman entered the library of a rabbinical seminary and opened fire on a crowded nighttime study session Thursday, killing eight people and wounding dozens of others before he was killed, police and rescue workers said. It was the first militant attack in Jerusalem in more than four years.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip praised the operation, and thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate.
The day's violence, which also included a deadly ambush of an army patrol near Israel's border with Gaza, was likely to complicate attempts by Egypt to forge a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants. The U.S. is backing the Egyptian effort.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the attacker walked through the seminary's main gate and entered the library, where witnesses said some 80 people were gathered. He carried an assault rifle and pistol, and used both weapons in the attack. He said police were also searching for an explosives belt.
Two hours after the shooting, police found the body of the eighth victim.
‘Covered in blood’
Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of the Zaka rescue service, entered the library after the attack. "The whole building looked like a slaughterhouse. The floor was covered in blood. The students were in class at the time of the attack," he said. "The floors are littered with holy books covered in blood."
Witnesses described a terrifying scene during the shooting, with students jumping out the windows of the building to escape.
After the shooting, hundreds of seminary students demonstrated outside the building, screaming for revenge and chanting "death to Arabs."
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, led a prayer session at the seminary after the shooting. Students huddled together, and many were sobbing uncontrollably.
Government spokesman Mark Regev harshly condemned the shooting. "Tonight's massacre in Jerusalem is a defining moment," he said. "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."
Regev said the Palestinian government must take steps against the extremists, not just condemn their attacks.
Israeli defense officials said the attacker came from east Jerusalem, the predominantly Palestinian section of the city. Jerusalem's Palestinians have Israeli ID cards that give them freedom of movement inside Israel, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
David Simchon, head of the seminary, said the students had been preparing a celebration for the new month on the Jewish calendar, which includes the holiday of Purim. "We were planning to have a Purim party here tonight and instead we had a massacre," he told Channel 2 TV.
“It’s very sad tonight in Jerusalem. Many people were killed in the heart of Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski.
'Act of terror and depravity'
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday condemned the attack, calling it an "act of terror and depravity."
Rice said she spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to express U.S. condolences to the people of Israel and the families of the victims of the Thursday night attack against rabbinical students in Jerusalem.
"The United States condemns tonight's act of terror and depravity," Rice said in a statement. "This barbarous act has no place among civilized peoples and shocks the conscience of all peace loving nations. There is no cause that could ever justify this action."
In Gaza, Palestinians poured into the streets to celebrate, firing rifles in the air.
“We bless the (Jerusalem) operation. It will not be the last,” Hamas said in a text message sent to reporters.
"This is God's vengeance," blared a loudspeaker in a Gaza City mosque.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television said a previously unknown group called the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh and Gaza claimed responsibility for the attack. Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah commander, was killed Feb. 12 by a car bomb in Syria. Hezbollah blamed his assassination on Israel, which denied any role.
Peace talks threatenedThe attack in Jerusalem came a day after Rice persuaded moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks with Israel and on the same day Egyptian officials were trying to mediate a truce between Gaza militants and Israel.
Abbas suspended the talks after Israel launched a military offensive against Gaza militants barraging southern Israel with rockets. Palestinian officials say more than 120 were killed in Gaza during the weeklong operation. Four Israelis were also killed.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby said the gunmen was wearing what at first appeared to be an explosives vest but turned out to be a belt holding extra ammunition.
Hundreds of police surrounded the area and searched the campus as ambulances raced to the scene. Scores of seminary students spilled out onto the sidewalk and street outside after they were evacuated.
The seminary is in the Kiryat Moshe quarter of Jerusalem, a well-known center of Jewish studies identified with the leadership of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank.
The school was founded in 1924 as a center of Religious Zionism, and today is one of the biggest centers of Jewish studies in Israel.
There were no attacks by Palestinian militants in Jerusalem during 2007, though police and the military claimed to have foiled many attempts. Between 2001 and 2004, at the height of Palestinian-Israeli fighting, Jerusalem was a frequent target of Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings on buses.
Palestinians killed in airstrike
In a separate development, an Israeli airstrike killed four Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, the Islamic Jihad militant group and the Israeli army said.
The Islamic Jihad said four of its members were killed in the missile strike near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. It said they were planting an explosive device to target Israeli army patrols.
An Israeli army spokesman said the attack was aimed at a number of gunmen who were planting explosives in the same area an Israeli soldier was killed earlier on Thursday.