Blast won't stall talks

Israelis hold back on quick retaliation for suicide bombing

1 dead, more than 40 hurt

Muted reaction contrasts sharply with that a week ago

April 23, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR SAVA, Israel - In the face of a suicide bus bombing yesterday that killed one Israeli and wounded dozens, Israeli officials pledged to keep open several quiet channels of dialogue with the Palestinians and held back from any immediate retaliation.

"Despite the attack, talks will continue in order to find a means to reduce violence completely," Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Television.

The muted reaction by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon contrasted sharply with its fierce response less than a week earlier to relatively ineffectual Palestinian mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and a town just across the border in Israel.

Then, Israel's army mounted a fierce air, land and sea assault on Palestinian government sites and reoccupied the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip, withdrawing only after stinging criticism from the United States.

The change appeared to stem both from strong, continued Western pressure on Israel to show restraint and from progress Saturday night in a three-hour meeting of Israeli and Palestinian security officials. The meeting was mediated by U.S. officials.

Israel said the security meeting occurred in a "serious and good atmosphere" and produced agreement on a number to steps to bring about a cease-fire and ease the closure of the Palestinian territories.

Hours later, a Palestinian with a bomb apparently strapped to his body approached a bus in Kfar Saba, 12 miles from Tel Aviv, during rush hour, igniting a blast that sent bits of flesh flying over vehicles and hurled a body from the bus.

"The bus exploded. There was fire, and a man was thrown out without his foot - dead. ... Everyone was running," said Rachel Raff, who saw the bombing from a car dealership across the street.

The blast killed Dr. Mario Goldin, 52, an immigrant from Argentina who ran a pain treatment unit at the Loewenstein Hospital Rehabilitation Center in Raanana.

"He was one of the doctors patients loved," said the center's director, Yaacov Hart. Goldin's patients included people who had been injured in previous bomb attacks, Hart said.

Muriel Armand, 34, who was on the bus, told Israel Radio she heard a boom that "you wouldn't imagine" and disembarked to find a schoolboy lying on his backpack, his head in a pool of blood. "I couldn't stop running and saying, `The boy, the boy,'" she recalled.

Within moments, medics from the Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom arrived from their headquarters two blocks away.

Mauwiya Kabha, an Arab-Israeli driver, put the boy on a stretcher and got him to nearby Meir Hospital within minutes. The 14-year-old boy, whose name was not immediately released, underwent seven hours of surgery for serious head injuries.

Most of the more than 40 wounded suffered shrapnel injuries and were released after treatment.

In a statement sent by fax to Reuters in Jerusalem, a Palestinian group, the Popular Army Front-Return Battalions, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The statement from the little-known group could not be immediately verified.

Sharon blamed the Palestinian Authority for the attack and told a visiting delegation last night that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "personally, strategically controls events."

However, Ben-Eliezer said he believes that yesterday's bombing was planned well before Saturday night's security meeting and advocated giving the Palestinian Authority more time to clamp down on terrorist cells.

Besides the security meetings, several other high-level channels have opened between Israel and the Palestinians, including between Arafat and Sharon's son, Omri, and between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Sharon has vowed not to negotiate under fire. His spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said last night that the dialogue under way in various channels is aimed at "a cessation of hostilities" and should not be considered political negotiations.

But Peres has kept alive a Jordanian-Egyptian peace proposal that calls for an end to violence and the economic siege imposed on Palestinian territories, a pullback of Israeli tanks and troops, and resumption of talks leading to a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Sharon has said that talks on a permanent agreement should be put off indefinitely, but pledged last night that when terror activities stop, he would immediately open negotiations aimed at a political settlement.

The absence of a powerful immediate reaction to yesterday's bombing brought criticism from far-right members of Sharon's government, according to Israeli television. Reporters overheard Avigdor Lieberman complaining to Ben-Eliezer: "When are you going to start working?"

Kfar Sava and two other midsize Israeli towns near the coast, Netanya and Hedera, have borne the brunt of recent terror attacks inside Israel.

By now, the communities resume workday routines within hours of a terrorist attack.

All three towns are a short distance from the Green Line and West Bank areas that are home to thousands of refugees, the most bitter and disillusioned part of the Palestinian population.

A recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, an independent Palestinian organization, found that 54 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings as a tactic to bring pressure against Israel.

In Qalqilya, the West Bank town nearest Kfar Saba, residents braced themselves last night for Israeli retaliation, although Mayor Ma'rouf Zahran said the bomber apparently did not come from there.

The town, he said, had endured three weeks of "total siege" and destruction of 80 acres of agricultural land by Israeli bulldozers.

"When people are faced with the destruction of their property, we feel we've lost everything and there's nothing left to lose," the mayor said.

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