Jerusalem high school endures yet another loss in suicide blast


JERUSALEM - This is a small city where the common denominator, because of suicide bombings, has become death, or barely escaping it.

It is almost impossible to walk in any direction from the city center without passing a place where, in the past 40 months, a bus, a cafe or a restaurant hasn't been blown up.

No neighborhood or community seems immune - ultra-Orthodox Jews in their religious enclaves; secular patrons of coffeehouses; foreign students at a university that prides itself on diversity; rowdy teens jamming to rock music on a pedestrian mall.

People have been injured or witnessed blasts twice or three times over. Neighbors, relatives and co-workers disappear instantly and without warning. Schools keep losing students.

It happened again Sunday, when a Palestinian militant boarded bus No. 14 and detonated a bomb laden with shards of metal, killing himself and eight people. Among the passengers were 21 high school students, including 10 from the Gymnasia Rehavia High School, a few blocks from downtown.

When word of the 8:30 a.m. bombing reached school administrators, they began the ritualistic count.

Ten students were missing.

Of the Gymnasia students aboard the bus, nine were taken to hospital emergency rooms. The 10th one, 17-year-old star soccer player Lior Azulai, had died.

"We are a village," said Judy Raviv, who has taught at the Gymnasia for the past three decades and had Azulai as one of her students. "It feels like everything is closing in on us."

The school is on a tree-shaded street in the well-to-do neighborhood of Rehavia. Few of the 1,200 students live close enough to walk to class. Nearly half live in the southern part of Jerusalem, and with classes beginning at 9 a.m., the No. 14 bus was timed to get them to the door just on time.

Raviv said she was to have told Azulai yesterday that he did well on the English exam he took Friday. Instead, she went to his home in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot to mourn. He never learned his grade.

"He was a kid who always had a smile on his face," Raviv recalled, standing next to a memorial in the school's lobby that showed pictures of Azulai in his soccer uniform and one of him sporting a brown tie loosely wrapped around his shirt collar.

"There is nothing that could happen that would wipe away that smile," Raviv said. "His friends are walking around today, and we don't know how to help them. Lior was at the center of what made this school. He helped everybody, and he would have been a good person to have around on a day like this."

The Gymnasia was built in 1909, during Ottoman rule of what was then Palestine, 39 years before Israel became a state. It has lost more than 100 students and graduates during the nation's wars and in militant attacks. Dozens of its graduates have become government leaders; hundreds have joined elite military units.

Last month, a bus blew up around the corner from the school, killing 11 passengers and leaving a 16-year-old student, Nati Siso, paralyzed from the waist down. The father of a student was killed in a cafe blast six months ago.

The first Israeli victim of the current Palestinian uprising had graduated from the school a year earlier: Army Sgt. David Biri, 19, was killed in October 2000 while on patrol near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Six years ago, two Gymnasia students buying books, 14- and 15-year-old girls, were killed in a bombing on the city's pedestrian mall.

"Our school has a proud history," Raviv said, clutching a piece of notebook paper on which she had scrawled the names of the injured and dead from Sunday's blast. "And we have paid a very heavy price."

The latest bombing was quickly put into a political context, as it came the day before hearings before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, where judges are examining the legality of the West Bank security barrier being built by Israel.

"In such confrontations in the past, Israel was the rational side and the Palestinians the emotional side," Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote yesterday. "We explained our case, they wept. This time it seems the tables have turned. The Palestinians explain, and the Israelis cry."

The newspaper Maariv filled yesterday's front page with the photo of a bloodied young man injured in the attack, with a headline in red letters: "You judge."

Palestinians declared a strike yesterday and stopped traffic for five minutes to encourage protests, some of which turned violent. Police used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to disperse rock-throwing crowds in Abu Dis on Jerusalem's outskirts and in Tulkarm in the West Bank.

Israeli supporters of the barrier held a counter-rally in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, near an area where several suicide bombers are believed to have walked into the city.

One of the victims of Sunday's bombing was the brother of an administrative officer at the Israeli Embassy at The Hague, whose job it was to assemble information packets on militant attacks to help rally support for the barrier during this week's hearing. The brother, Yehuda Haim, ran a Jerusalem sandwich shop.

Raviv, holding her list of students from the attack, stood in the lobby between classes yesterday and watched as students assembled the memorial to Azulai. They lit candles and displayed photographs, newspaper clippings and the words to a song.

The teacher glanced down at her paper. Her next class would be short two students who were recovering in a hospital. Her first class today would be short two more. She turned away.

"I've seen too many of these," she said.

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