Anger over peace talks as Israelis mourn

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Israel on Friday laid to rest the bodies of eight religious students gunned down on Thursday night. Along with them, several mourners said, were buried the hopes of many for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of Israelis – including a large contingent of Jewish settlers from the West Bank – packed the streets outside the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in west Jerusalem, reciting psalms and praying for the dead.

The victims were killed by a Palestinian gunman armed with a pistol and a Kalashnikov rifle. He stormed the religious school on Thursday night spraying bullets until he was gunned down by an off-duty army officer. It was the first terrorist attack in Jerusalem in four years and the deadliest in Israel since 2006.

Amid the sorrow, there was also anger at the Israeli government for continuing to pursue negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. “This was murder. The ones who died at this school are martyrs who have sacrificed themselves for the government to wake up,” said Nachum Rom, a rabbi and former student at Merkaz Harav yeshiva.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, the head of the yeshiva, also issued a thinly veiled criticism of the government, saying the time had come “for us to have strong, good and reliable leadership”.

The Israeli government harshly condemned the attack but insisted it would not abandon the US-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. The response echoed a long-established, though frequently ignored, dictum of Israeli policymakers that says the government must pursue peace talks as if there were no terrorism, and fight terrorism as if there were no peace talks.

Yet with violence and killings between Palestinians and Israelis sharply on the rise and mounting public anger on both sides, a weakened Israeli government and the equally embattled Palestinian leadership now face a stern test.

Both Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will have to provide an answer to the fierce anger and hunger for retribution among their own constituencies and, at the same time, find a way to breathe new life into a diplomatic process that has made little headway so far. Just how hard this balancing act already is became apparent when Mr Abbas suspended the peace talks last Saturday in protest at the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza that left more than 100 Palestinians dead, including many civilians.

Despite strong US pressure on Mr Abbas, they have yet to be reopened. While Israel remains committed to the talks for the time being, another Palestinian suicide attack in an Israeli city could yet challenge the government’s stance.

In Jerusalem, most residents on Friday went about their business seemingly without fear of further attacks. Shoppers crowded into the city’s main market to buy food ahead of the sabbath, and public buses – frequent targets of earlier attacks – were filled with passengers.

But there was a mass Israeli security presence in Arab east Jerusalem, with police erecting dozens of checkpoints and refusing to let men younger than 45 into the Old City to attend Friday prayers.

People in the Gaza Strip braced themselves for Israel’s military response, after reports that Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the territory, had claimed responsibility for the shooting. The Hamas announcement contradicted claims by the attacker’s friends and family that the gunman had acted alone and out of personal anger over Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

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