KFAR DOROM, Gaza Strip - Israel launched its heaviest helicopter barrage to date against Palestinian targets last night to avenge a terrorist mortar attack on a Jewish settler school bus that killed two adults and badly injured several children.
The bus bombing and retaliation suddenly ratcheted up the seven-week cycle of violence from a three-day lull after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced his intention to prevent shooting at Israelis from inside Palestinian-controlled territory.
Israeli officials, dismissing any idea of resuming the peace process after what they called a "barbaric" attack on children, said their policy of "restraint"' had been replaced by a campaign of "pressure" on Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under strong public demand to "let the Army win," vowed protection for the 200,000 Jewish settlers occupying land in the West Bank and Gaza that Palestinians are fighting to regain. He also appealed anew for the right-wing Likud and other opposition parties to join in an emergency government.
"We are not entering a picnic, but a tough struggle, in which there will be more difficult moments, and if we stand together, unified, we shall win," he said in a televised statement.
By evening, nine Palestinian Authority and Fatah movement buildings in several Gaza locations had been damaged. The headquarters of Preventive Security chief Mohammed Dhalan was all but destroyed in more than an hour of heavy shelling that left up to 80 people injured, one seriously, according to reports from Gaza.
Israeli television reported that Dahlan was a suspect in organizing the attack on the bus.
Gaza City itself was plunged into darkness.
This followed an afternoon of demonstrations in which a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire, according to Palestinians. Gunbattles erupted in late evening.
This small settlement of 45 Jewish families, in the middle of the Gaza Strip, was in mourning.
An armored bus left here at about 7:30 a.m. for a 15-minute ride to take elementary school-age children to a government-run school at a larger Jewish settlement in Gaza, Neve Dkalim. As usual for settler buses traveling through Gaza, it was accompanied front and back by Army patrol jeeps.
Barely two miles along the route, the bus was hit by a 120-mm mortar shell fired by wire-activated remote control from 200 yards away.
From Kfar Dorom, Nachson Friedman heard a boom and saw a mushroom cloud rise into the air. He and a neighbor sped to the scene to find that shrapnel had badly damaged the bus's reinforced body. Inside, they found the smashed, bloody bodies of a teacher, Miriam Amitai, who was the mother of four children, and the other adult, Gabi Biton.
Then they saw the 10 children, still on their seats.
"The children didn't scream. They just cried in a small voice. It was very scary," said Friedman. A number had bad leg wounds.
The three Cohen children, Orit, 12, Tehila, 8, and Israel, 7, seated together, each had badly torn legs, requiring partial amputation. Two other children and three adults were also injured
The wounded were rushed to a hospital in Be'er Sheva, where Yossi Haddad, the father of an injured girl, said she had been on a bus two years ago that narrowly escaped a bombing in which one soldier died.
"Barak is just trying to make Arafat happy," complained Haddad, calling the Palestinian leader a "terrorist of Jewish children."
Arafat's Palestinian Authority denied any connection with the bus bombing and said it would investigate. Two groups, one calling itself Palestine Hezbollah and the other the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed responsibility.
Arafat aide Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli shelling and accused Barak of sending the whole region "down the drain."
Brushing aside the authority's denials, Barak aide Danny Yatom said Israel had evidence that the bombing was the work of militants belonging to Arafat's Fatah movement.
Defiant settlers here had no plans to abandon their routines.
"I can't tell you people are fearless when they put their children on buses," said Sarah Friedman, a Kfar Dorom spokesman. "We're turning to the government to do its job. Let the soldiers be soldiers. There is a very small stretch of road [between the settlements]. There's no reason, with this amount of soldiers, we can't protect the children every morning."
"My children are not soldiers," said Haddad. "We have the best army in the world. If the government lets the army do what it knows how to do, it will know what, when and where to do it."
Like other Gaza settlements, heavily guarded Kfar Dorom now lives under the shadow of almost nightly gunbattles.
Like settlers in the West Bank, those living in occupied Gaza territory are considered legitimate targets of attack by many Palestinians who oppose striking at civilians inside Israel.