A Palestinian terrorist opened fire at a central Jerusalem yeshiva late Thursday night, killing eight students and wounding 11 others, police and rescue officials said.
The 8:45 p.m. shooting at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood broke a two-year lull in terror in the capital and sent students scurrying for cover from a hail of gunfire - a reported 500-600 bullets - that lasted for several minutes.
"There were horrendous screams of 'Help us! Help us!'" recounted Avrahami Sheinberger of the ZAKA emergency rescue service, one of the first to respond to the scene. "There were bodies strewn all over the floor, at the entrance to the yeshiva, in various rooms and in the library."
As security forces raced to the scene, the gunman fired round after round of ammunition into the library at the seminary, religious Zionism's flagship institution. About 80 students had gathered in the library to celebrate the Hebrew month of Adar II, which begins on Friday evening.
It was not immediately clear, late Thursday night, whether there was a security guard at the entrance to the yeshiva.
Channel 2 reported that the terrorist carried a blue Israeli identity card and came from east Jerusalem.
Initial reports of a second terrorist on the loose proved unfounded, police said.
"We heard shooting and knew that something had happened," recounted Yitzhak Dadon, 40, who studies at the yeshiva. Dadon said he cocked his handgun and went up to the roof of the yeshiva, where he saw the terrorist spraying gunfire indiscriminately at the crowd inside. Dadon said he fired two bullets at the terrorist, who began to stumble.
At the same time, police arrived at the scene and an intense gunfight erupted with the terrorist lasting several minutes, witnesses said. The scent of gunpowder wafted in the air as undercover police stormed the building.
Jerusalem police chief Cmdr. Aharon Franco said the terrorist was killed by an IDF officer who lives near the yeshiva and raced to the scene.
Rescue workers recounted a grisly picture of students hiding under desks and locking themselves in classrooms to avoid being caught in the hail of bullets.
Yerach Toker, a paramedic for United Hatzola of Israel, said he saw several dead yeshiva students on the library's floor. "Some of them were still holding sacred Jewish books smeared with blood from which they were learning before they were murdered," he said.
"I heard an explosion and I quickly understood that this was gunfire," said Nuri Davidov, 21. "We hid in a room and, from a window, we could see the terrorist opening fire at other students."
"We had just finished evening prayers and suddenly we heard a burst of gunfire," said Dr. Yitzhak Luber, who was attending a class at the yeshiva. "We all immediately ducked on the floor."
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby said the dead gunman was wearing a vest that at first appeared to be an explosives vest but turned out to be a belt holding extra ammunition.
Outside the yeshiva after the attack, crowds of angry onlookers shouted "Death to Arabs!" as rescue workers rushed the wounded to city hospitals.
Franco said that there was no specific intelligence warning about such an impending attack, although there were general alerts for terrorist attacks in the city.
Police were on heightened alert ahead of Friday prayers on the Temple Mount after a major IDF operation in the Gaza Strip earlier in the week.
Hizbullah's Al-Manar satellite television station announced Thursday that a relatively unknown Israeli Arab group called the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh and Gaza was responsible for the shooting attack. "Galilee Freedom Battalions - the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh and Gaza claimed responsibility for the Jerusalem operation," read the message that flashed across Al-Manar's screen.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was informed of the attack after holding security meetings in Tel Aviv. He spoke immediately after the attack with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, and held consultations with his advisers and security officials.
Lupolianski told Channel 2, "It's very sad tonight in Jerusalem - many people were killed in the heart of Jerusalem."
The Foreign Ministry said the attack would not stop Israel's peace efforts. "Talks will continue," a spokesman said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack. "The president condemns all attacks that target civilians, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli," the PA said in a statement.
In Gaza City, residents went out into the streets and fired rifles in the air in celebration after hearing news of the attack on the yeshiva.
At Shaare Zedek Medical Center, which is only a few minutes' drive from the yeshiva, the most seriously wounded student - who had bullet holes in many parts of his body - was rushed to the operating room. Spokeswoman Shoham Ruvio said he looked about 18 years old. Two other wounded students were in moderate condition, while four were lightly wounded. The age of the wounded was estimated at 16 to 28.
At Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, three wounded were received. Two were in serious condition in the trauma room, while one was lightly wounded.
According to eyewitnesses, the students initially thought that the gunfire was fireworks - part of a party underway to celebrate the beginning of Adar II.
The Mercaz Harav Yeshiva is considered the leading national-religious yeshiva in Israel, with hundreds of elite students. Among its thousands of graduates are leading public figures including senior rabbis and IDF officers. It was founded in 1924 by mandatory Palestine's first chief rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Its longtime head, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, died in September 2007.
Rabbi David Stav, one of many prominent graduates of the yeshiva, which has produced the bulk of the spiritual leadership of religious Zionism in Israel, said that the attack had been directed at the heart of religious Zionism.
"Mercaz Harav is the flagship of the entire religious Zionist movement," said Stav. "The terrorist targeted a place that symbolizes love for the land of Israel, love for the people of Israel and love for the Torah. No Jewish soul can remain indifferent to the horrible thought that a despicable terrorist attacked a group of young men who were busy studying the holy Torah."
Stav, who has been involved in interfaith dialogue with Israeli Muslim spiritual leaders via an organization called Kedem, said that Thursday night's attack underscores the cruelty and evil of Islamic-inspired terrorism. "Followers of Islam claim they respect the people of the book. But this horrific act proves the emptiness of their claims."
Rabbi David Simhon, the educational director of the yeshiva, said "the people of Israel will not be broken" by attacks such as this.
Matthew Wagner, Judy Siegel and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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