JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Hamas claimed responsibility on Friday for shooting eight students at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem, the most lethal Palestinian attack on Israelis in two years and a blow to international efforts to revive peace talks.
The Islamists, who also claimed a suicide bombing a month ago, had vowed to hit back after an Israeli offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip killed more than 120 people in recent days.
A lone gunman killed the young men on Thursday at the Merkaz Harav religious college. But the Israeli government said it would keep talking with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s secular rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Washington, sponsor of a peace process already buffeted by the killing of dozens of civilians in Israel’s latest Gaza offensive, said the fact that the talks were continuing was “the most important thing”.
Some mourners at funerals for the dead, who were studying at a bastion of the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank, were less positive about the process. And Israel’s security minister said hostile Arabs like the dead gunman should be forced out of the mixed city of Jerusalem and sent to live in the West Bank.
“The Hamas movement announces its full responsibility for the Jerusalem operation,” a Hamas official told Reuters in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas seized control from Abbas in June. He spoke on condition of anonymity and the group released no official statement.
A spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing called the attack “an honor we have not claimed yet”. An Israeli official said authorities were still investigating the incident.
The attack and the Hamas claim prompted celebrations in Gaza. A White House spokesman called that “fairly disgusting”.
Israel imposed a security clampdown on Jerusalem as thousands attended funerals for the eight victims, aged 15 to 26. Police set up roadblocks and troops tightened limits on Palestinian travel from the West Bank into Israel.
Gunman Ala Abu Dhaim, whose family in East Jerusalem said he once worked as a driver for the college, was shot dead after opening fire with an automatic rifle at students in the library.
Hamas flags and banners of other Islamist groups flew at the home of the gunman, identified by neighbours as Ala Abu Dhaim, in his early 20s, after what proved to be a suicide mission.
Israeli President Shimon Peres denounced the attack as “barbaric” because the students had “nothing to do with war”.
The shooting could further complicate U.S.-backed peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas. The latter suspended the process after Israel’s attacks in Gaza but promised visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week that he would return to the negotiations in due course.
Hamas’s claim may also undermine tentative talks undertaken this week by Egypt, and encouraged by Washington, to foster a truce between the group and Israel.
Israel said Abbas should do more to rein in militants. Yet Abu Dhaim, who was in his early 20s, lived in Jerusalem, which is under full Israeli control. Arab residents have open access to Jewish parts of the city and the rest of Israel.
“If Israel really wants to solve all these problems, Israel must look to the negotiations,” said Abbas aide Nabil Amr.
Israel deployed thousands of police in Jerusalem and limited Palestinian access to prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
At a funeral ceremony at Merkaz Harav, Danny Spiegel blamed Olmert’s government. “We feel the government is not helping us, is not making us feel secure here in Israel.”
Rice told Abbas by telephone on Friday that her efforts to reach a “calm as soon as possible” with Israel would continue, an Abbas aide said.
Washington wants Egypt to broker a deal under which Hamas and other Gaza militants would stop firing rockets. Israel would, in turn, halt its attacks on the enclave, which it says it has conducted only to try to halt the rocket attacks.
Washington has also pressed Israel to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. Though the Jerusalem attacker did not come from there, the killing makes that less likely to happen soon.
Israel has yet to meet its own commitments under a long-stalled peace “road map” to halt all settlement activity and to remove Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Editing by Mark Trevelyan