Agence France Presse (AFP)
March 7, 2008 - 6:30pm

Israel was on alert and Gaza braced for reprisals on Friday as crowds mourned eight teenagers killed by a Palestinian gunman at a Jewish religious school in an attack claimed by the Islamist Hamas.

Residents of the impoverished Gaza Strip were bracing for punitive Israeli military strikes after the attack which shook the faltering peace talks and provoked strong condemnation from around the world.

Thousands gathered in Jerusalem for the funerals of the teenagers killed in the attack carried out by a Palestinian resident of occupied east Jerusalem, who sprayed automatic gunfire at the students before being gunned down by an army officer late on Thursday.

Police arrested more than 10 relatives and friends of 25-year-old Alaa Hisham Abu Dheim of the Jabal al-Mukaber area, where a mourning tent draped in Palestinian and Hamas flags was set up.

The attack, the first in four years in Jerusalem, was claimed by a senior official of the Islamist movement, which refuses to recognise the Jewish state's right to exist.

"Hamas is responsible for the attack. The Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades will officially claim the attack at the right moment," the Gaza official told AFP on condition of anonymity, referring to the group's armed wing.

Thursday's attack came after a surge in violence that left more than 130 Palestinians dead in and around Hamas-run Gaza in eight days. Three Israeli soldiers and one civilian were also killed in the same period.

The army sealed off the occupied West Bank and Israeli police declared a "general state of alert."

Israel's main ally, US President George W. Bush, led a global chorus of outrage, but the UN Security Council failed to agree on a condemnation amid Libyan opposition.

The students -- most of them 15 or 16 years old and including one US citizen -- were shot dead at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, a theological school in predominantly Jewish west Jerusalem. Another nine were wounded.

Thousands of people, many clad in the traditional black attire of Orthodox Jews, long curls hanging down from their kippas, attended an emotional funeral ceremony at the school Friday.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" a rabbi cried out, choking with emotion.

The gunman had entered the school with an AK47 assault rifle and headed for the library, where he opened fire at students gathered for a special evening prayer before being gunned down by law enforcement officers, police said.

The school is considered the centre of Israeli religious nationalism, where the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faith) settler movement was born after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Hamas earlier hailed the attack as "heroic" as hundreds of people poured into the streets of Gaza to celebrate the shootings on Thursday. But it also indicated it would consider a truce if Israel meets its conditions.

The White House on Friday denounced as "fairly disgusting" the celebrations in Gaza.

"This was a vicious attack, there is nothing that can explain away this kind of attack. But the most important thing is that the peace process continues and that the parties are committed to it," a spokesman said.

Immediately after the attack, the Lebanese Hezbollah Shiite group said it was carried out to avenge the death of its senior commander, Imad Mughnieh, assassinated in a Damascus bombing on Februaury 12.

Moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas denounced the strike. "We condemn all attacks against civilians, be they Palestinian or Israeli," his office quoted him as saying in a statement.

Israel slammed the attack as aiming to end the chances for peace in the region and vowed to defend itself.

A senior government official stressed nonetheless that peace talks would continue. "Israel will maintain its policy of talking to moderates ... and at the same time fight the radicals of Hamas," the official told AFP.

In a rare move, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference -- the Muslim world's biggest political bloc -- also condemned the Jerusalem killings, saying it abhorred "violence and terror."

Russia's foreign ministry joined in the condemnations but called for Israeli restraint.

"Israel has the right, as with every other state, to defend the lives and the security of its citizens. At the same time, it is evident that innocent civilians must not become victims of the fight against terrorism," it added.


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