JERUSALEM — A lone gunman stormed a well-known Jewish religious school in Jerusalem Thursday night and killed eight people in the deadliest attack in the city in more than four years.
Armed with a pistol and machine gun, the attacker walked into the unguarded Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav and opened fire in the library and nearby dormitory before police killed him.
The shooting was the latest setback for the Bush administration's faltering attempts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by year's end, and some Israelis worry that it could be the beginning of another spasm of violence.
"I saw a terrible scene of young guys in the library holding holy books in their hands," said Yerach Tucker, a volunteer medical responder who got to the scene while the attack was still underway. "You see the fear in the eyes of the Israelis."
There were no immediate, credible claims of responsibility, though Hezbollah television in Beirut said the shooting was carried out by a new group that seeks to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a leader of the militant Lebanese Shiite Muslim group. Mughniyeh was killed last month by a car bomb in Damascus, the Syrian capital, an attack that many suspect Israel orchestrated.
Leaders of the militant Sunni group Hamas in the Gaza Strip called the attack an inevitable response to last week's Israeli military operation in Gaza that killed more than 100 Palestinians.
"There will always be someone who will avenge Palestinian blood," Munir Masri, a Hamas member of the Palestinian legislature, told Al Aqsa television after the attack.
Though the name of the killer at the school wasn't released, Israeli government officials said he lived in East Jerusalem, which suggests that he was an Arab.
The attack was the deadliest in Jerusalem since Feb. 22, 2004, when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus, killing eight people and wounding 60 others.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas both denounced the shooting, and negotiators on both sides said the attack shouldn't derail the effort to revive peace talks.
The shooting came little more than 24 hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Jerusalem on a diplomatic rescue mission that achieved limited success.
Earlier this week, Abbas cut off talks with Israel to protest the death toll in Gaza. After conferring with Rice, he agreed to resume the talks, but didn't say when they'd begin again.
While the motivation for the attack wasn't immediately clear, the school may have been targeted because of its historic status as a cornerstone for the religious settlement movement that opposes giving up land in the West Bank as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Founded in 1924, the Yeshiva is one of Israel's elite religious schools, and has more than 500 students.
Frustrated, angry and emotional Israelis gathered outside the school, chanting "Death to Arabs" and "Olmert's to blame."
Witnesses said the gunman walked into the unguarded open courtyard outside the five-story concrete school shortly after 8:30 p.m. as students were preparing to celebrate the start of Adar, considered the most festive month in the Jewish calendar.
Dressed in street clothes, the man pulled a Kalashnikov assault rifle from a bag and started shooting.
Ariel Delarosa was in the school library with dozens of other students when he heard the shooting. While some thought it was fireworks to celebrate the holiday, Delarosa and others barricaded themselves in side rooms of the library.
"We could hear the shooting and the screams of the wounded and dead," said Delarosa.
As police and rescue workers rushed to the scene, witnesses said the shooter opened fire on the street.
By the time the shooter was killed, eight people were dead and nine were wounded.
Police immediately declared alerts across the nation and announced plans to bring in extra security Friday to oversee weekly Muslim prayers in Jerusalem's Old City.
Even before Thursday's shooting, Israel was bracing for problems at Friday prayers because of expected protests against the deaths in Gaza.
(Special correspondents Cliff Churgin and Alon Tuval contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)