Violence rages in Israel, leaving at least 17 dead

Bus explosion in north followed by fatal attacks in Jerusalem and Gaza

Hamas claims `martyr attack'

August 05, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - On a day punctuated by a series of deadly attacks across Israel and the West Bank, an explosion probably triggered by a Palestinian suicide bomber ripped apart a bus full of Israeli soldiers in northern Israel yesterday morning, killing at least nine people.

Dozens of people were killed or wounded in the violence yesterday, one of the most violent days in months.

About 3 1/2 hours after the bus blast, a Palestinian armed with two pistols shot and killed an Israeli telephone worker outside Jerusalem's walled Old City, prompting a gunbattle with police that left the gunman and a bystander dead and 17 others wounded.

Later in the afternoon, a roadside bomb damaged a car, and Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a bus in separate incidents near Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Seven Israelis were injured in the two incidents, several of them seriously.

In the Gaza Strip, soldiers fatally shot an armed Palestinian in a wet suit who had swum to an area near the Dugit and Alei Sinai Jewish settlements, army officials said.

And early today, an Israeli mother and father were killed, and their two children, 6 months and 3 years old, were injured when Palestinians shot at their car in the northern West Bank near the Jewish settlement of Ariel.

Also today, Israeli troops fatally shot two Palestinians, including a fugitive local leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, in the village of Borqa, north of Nablus, relatives said.

Israeli police said they strongly believed that a suicide bomber from Jenin was responsible for the bus explosion near the town of Tsfat, which would bring the death toll to 10.

But they also were investigating the possibility that the bomb had been planted. They were searching for two young Arab women who had gotten off just before the blast.

The militant Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, claimed responsibility for blowing up the bus and said it was part of its revenge for a July 23 Israeli airstrike, which killed one of its leaders in Gaza and 14 bystanders. The group described it as a "martyr attack," indicating it was most likely a suicide operation.

The blast was four days after a Hamas militant triggered a bomb that blew apart a cafeteria on Jerusalem's Hebrew University campus, killing seven people, including five Americans. The group said that also was a retaliatory strike for the Gaza strike.

Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the shooting and subsequent attacks yesterday on Israeli vehicles in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials are desperately trying to find new ways to combat the latest surge in violence with a two-pronged approach of strong military assaults on Palestinian cities, such as the push into the center of Nablus over the weekend, and deterring attackers by expelling their relatives and demolishing their homes.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer canceled meetings they had scheduled today with top Palestinian officials to discuss security and a possible withdrawal of troops from at least one West Bank city. Those meetings might happen later this week.

But Sharon said he would continue to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, where 700,000 people have been under occupation by the Israeli army for seven weeks, by extending curfew breaks and issuing more permits to allow workers into Israel.

And a Palestinian Authority delegation is set to meet in Washington this week with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to discuss security reforms. It would be the highest-level talks between the two groups since President Bush suggested that restoring order would be easier without Palestinian leader Arafat.

Bush condemned yesterday's violence.

"There are a few killers who want to stop the peace process that we have started," an angry Bush said from Maine, where he is vacationing. "We must not let them. For the sake of humanity, for the sake of the Palestinians who suffer, for the sake of the Israelis who are under attack, we must stop the terror."

The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing, too, but blamed the violence on Israel's military operations in the West Bank, its invasion of Nablus on Friday and curfews it has imposed on seven Palestinian cities.

The bus was bombed about 8:45 a.m. on the first day of the Israeli workweek as it traveled from the northern port city of Haifa to stops in the north, several miles from Lebanon's border.

As is typical on a Sunday, the bus was filled with Israeli soldiers heading to their bases after weekend leave. The bomb went off as the bus approached a stop at the Meron Junction, about five miles west of Tsfat.

The explosion, near the center of the green Egged bus, caved in the metal frame, dented the roof, and crumpled and twisted the back. Witnesses described a deafening blast followed by a fireball that sent pieces of bodies more than 100 yards.

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