Thousands gathered in Jerusalem March 21 for the funeral of four victims of the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, an attack the self-confessed killer told French authorities was committed in the name of “Palestinian children.”
As the funeral unfolded in Israel, French police continued a standoff outside the Toulouse home of Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian descent who claims ties to al Qaida.
French police surrounded Merah’s home in the morning. Francois Molins, lead prosecutor in the investigation, said Merah claimed responsibility for the brutal school killings, as well as the murders of three French soldiers, in negotiations during the standoff.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the gunman wanted revenge “for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign intervention.”
Merah reportedly has been known to French intelligence for many years.
Police say the school killer used the same weapon used in the previous week’s shooting of three French paratroopers of North African and Caribbean origin near Toulouse, and was planning to kill another soldier imminently, prompting the police raid on his apartment.
Molins said Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan.
The Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse reopened two days after the March 19 attack, in which a man riding a motorbike opened fire outside the school where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two young sons — Aryeh, 6, and Gavriel, 3 — as well as 7-year-old Miriam Monsonego, daughter of the school’s principal, were killed in the attack. All were shot at pointblank range.
Witnesses described the gunman as “calm” and “determined” as he pulled up to the school, dismounted without taking off his helmet and started shooting. He first shot Sandler and his sons as they waited for a minibus to take them to their nursery.
When the killer’s gun jammed, he reached for a second one and continued shooting as he chased pupils into the schoolyard, witnesses said. He cornered Miriam and shot her in the head. He also shot a 17-year-old boy, who remained hospitalized in critical condition as of the next day.
Gueant, the interior minister, said that surveillance tapes showed the killer wore a video camera around his neck but said it is not known if he was recording his own carnage.
Official reaction around the world was swift. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack had a “strong, murderous anti-Semitic motive.” The Vatican called it a “heinous” crime, and the White House said it was “outrageous and unprovoked.”
Southwestern France went to a scarlet terror alert, the highest possible level, shortly after the 8 a.m. shooting. Security was increased nationwide at synagogues and all religious schools, and outside Jewish and Muslim institutions, following emergency government protocols to respond in the event of a terrorist attack.
France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, estimated at 600,000, as well as an estimated 4 to 5 million Muslims.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy suspended his presidential campaign for the day and flew to Toulouse, calling the attack “obviously anti-Semitic.” Schoolchildren throughout the country observed a minute of silence in honor of the victims.
Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City held a memorial service March 21. Noting that Beth Jacob member Nicolas Lidzborski is a cousin of the murdered French rabbi, Beth Jacob Rabbi Nat Ezray wrote, “The killing of children is an unimaginable horror which deepens our sadness.”
“Your grief, your pain, is ours too,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at the victims’ funeral at Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery. “All of France is in shock.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also spoke at the funeral.
“In Toulouse and Jerusalem, in New York and Buenos Aires, Jews of all factions stand with us with deep pain in their hearts and tears in their eyes,” he said. “Again we stand before small, silent bodies, before small graves.”
The Palestinian Authority also condemned the murders, according to Agence France-Presse, which quoted Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as saying that “extremists” must stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine.
In a joint statement, the PLO, the PA and Palestinian missions to France and UNESCO condemned the attack, according to AFP. “All racist crimes are attacks on humanity in general and on the republic in particular,” the statement said.
Immediately after the attack, the French Jewish community sprang into action. David Ben Ichou, the social welfare director at the Fonds Social Juif Unifié (FSJU), the country’s main Jewish welfare organization, said the Jewish community in France has a community protection service of volunteers who guard Jewish institutions in times of crisis.
“They were mobilized within two hours of the shooting,” Ben Ichou said.
Jewish community leaders made sure frightened students at the Ozar Hatorah school and their parents received psychological counseling and help, according to Ben Ichou.
Late on the day of the shooting, thousands of Jews and non-Jews, including politicians, gathered in Paris for a silent demonstration organized by the French Union of Jewish Students. One banner read, “In France, Blacks, Jews and Arabs are killed.”
Nicole Yardeni, one of the leaders of the Toulouse area branch of the CRIF, France’s main Jewish umbrella organization, said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support after the shooting.
“Even the Jewish community of Istanbul has called us,” she said. “And not just Jews; many people all over the world have reached out. It has been such a great help.”
Yardeni’s son attended Ozar Hatorah a few years ago and she, like many in the 20,000- to 30,000-strong Jewish community in Toulouse, knew parents and teachers at the school.
She said the rabbi killed in the attack was an enormously well-liked teacher who had begun work at the school in July. He was born in Paris and was an alumnus of Ozar Hatorah who, after 10 years of study and training in Israel, had decided to return to France. He is reported to be a French citizen; his wife and children are dual French-Israeli citizens.
The Sandler family moved to France from Israel last year to serve as emissaries for two years on behalf of the Kollel Zichron Shimon, where Sandler worked and studied, preparing French students to become Jewish studies teachers and rabbis, according to Ha’aretz.
“He wanted to give back to this school that had given him so much,” Yardeni said, referring to Ozar Hatorah.
Before the funeral, the parents of Miriam Monsonego and Sandler’s widow arrived at a Jerusalem funeral home to say final goodbyes to their loved ones, whose bodies arrived in Israel following a memorial service at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, with Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon in attendance, Ha’aretz reported.
The uncle of Sandler’s widow told the Associated Press that she spends the night listening to her surviving 1-year-old daughter cry, “Papa! Papa! Papa!”
“It tears your heart,” Marc Alloul said. “In the end you just run out of tears for crying so much.”
–– j. wire services contributed to this report