HADERA, Israel - A car bomb exploded next to a crowded rush-hour bus here yesterday, killing two people, wounding 62 and bringing terror into the kind of midsize, middle-class town where most average Israelis live.
It was the first major bombing of a civilian target deep inside Israel, away from occupied Palestinian territory, since the latest conflict broke out Sept. 29, indicating that terrorists have lifted any self-imposed limits on where and whom they will strike.
The powerful blast caused the bus to lurch upward and then veer across a sidewalk into a row of shops in Hadera's commercial district. The explosive force shattered nearby storefronts, mangled parked cars and sent shoppers and commuters fleeing on foot in panic.
"We were thrown forward by the explosion, out of our seats," said Shai Vechter, 17, a passenger on a bus directly in front of the one hit by the bomb. "I looked back and saw burning pieces flying everywhere.
"There was a lot of smoke and fire and people ran to it and from it in panic. Someone was lying on the ground, moving and twisting his body in pain. It was horrible to see."
Aliza Jeraffi, who lives nearby, said she went outside and found the street emptied of pedestrians but filled with injured people. Other witnesses recounted seeing fingers and bits of brain tissue and limbs scattered about the wreckage.
The explosion capped a day of violence in which Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip killed four Palestinians who were activists in Yasser Arafat's al Fatah movement. The men had tried to run through an Israeli roadblock, the army said.
Elsewhere, a Palestinian man was killed after he was hit by a rifle-propelled grenade during a clash in Rafah, near Gaza's border with Egypt, Palestinian witnesses said. Israel said such grenades had been fired from the Palestinian side, but said its own soldiers returned fire.
Like an earlier fatal car blast in West Jerusalem, yesterday's attack was apparently not the work of a suicide bomber. Pessia Feldman, who watched from the children's clothing store she runs a few feet away, said she saw two young men leave the bomb vehicle and walk away moments before the bomb went off.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak placed the blame on the Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat. Although the government offered no evidence of who the perpetrators were, Israel Radio received leaked information that officials believed they were members of Islamic Jihad.
Barak said the Authority had freed from prison a number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, enabling them to plan and carry out such attacks. Authority officials denied responsibility for the attack. They previously have deplored violence against innocent civilians.
Barak and other members of Israel's security Cabinet were to meet today to plan what is expected to be violent retribution against Palestinian targets, further escalating the conflict. Al Fatah, likewise, announced it would avenge the deaths of its four militants.
At Hillel Yaffe hospital in Hadera, the family of Meir Brami, a 35-year-old restaurant worker, burst into the emergency room to look for him, only to be told that he had been killed.
Also killed was a young woman from Hadera, Shoshana Reiss, 21. Among the seriously injured was a 1 1/2 -year-old girl, Tara Abu Hussein, whose name suggests she is an Israeli-Arab.
Apart from residents performing military service, it seems a world away from the Palestinians' battle to end Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. But yesterday's attack brought the war home.
Gathering near the wrecked, shrapnel-scarred bus last night, an angry crowd shouted, "Death to the Arabs."
U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, in a visit to Israel yesterday, appealed for an end to the fighting in which more than 250 have died, mostly Palestinians.
He also urged the Israeli government to cooperate with a fact-finding panel appointed by President Clinton as part of a short-lived cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli officials had intimated that the panel's work would only encourage the Palestinians.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who helped set up the panel, offered little hope yesterday that it would serve to bring an end to the violence, which he said had almost reached "a warlike situation."