JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Shimon Peres told a nation shaken to its core Sunday by the third terrorist bombing in a week that Israel is at war with the militant Islamic movement Hamas and will use all means necessary to destroy it.
"We see these days as a time of war," Peres told a news conference called after his Cabinet announced a series of tough security measures. "Even if it hurts, we will fight a war that requires unequivocal measures--even emergency measures--that don't stand delay, that have to be implemented immediately, in order to destroy this group completely."
A military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for Sunday's early morning suicide attack on Jerusalem's No. 18 bus. Nineteen people died, including the bomber, and 10 were injured. It came exactly one week after another Hamas bomber killed 26 people, including himself, on the same route. A bombing coordinated with that attack left two people dead the same day near the coastal town of Ashkelon.
Both Israelis and Palestinians expressed fear Sunday that the latest attack may also have irreparably damaged Israel's already rocky relations with the self-governing Palestinian Authority.
Asked whether there is any point in Israel starting talks in May with the Palestinians on central issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as scheduled, Peres replied grimly: "If things are the same as they are today, there will be no point in starting. If things change, we'll reconsider."
A shocked Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, declared Iziddin al-Qassam--the Hamas wing that carried out Sunday's attack--the Fatah Hawks and other paramilitary groups to be illegal. His police began arresting military men whom Israel had fingered after the Feb. 25 bombings, and Arafat's elite Force 17 squad patrolled the streets of the Gaza Strip in armored personnel carriers all day Sunday.
Broadcasts on Voice of Palestine radio decried the "extremists" among the Palestinian people who the radio said are wrecking the Palestinians' chance to build their homeland in the West Bank and Gaza.
"Bibi Netanyahu does not need to do anything. He can just sit in his house between now and the elections, because there are those among us who are working to put Netanyahu in power," said Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli who advises Arafat. Telephoning Voice of Palestine to express his outrage over Sunday's bombing, Tibi called on Palestinians to demonstrate against the attacks.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the leader of the opposition Likud Party. He has vowed that, if elected, he will not meet with Arafat and will limit Palestinian self-rule to the towns and villages the Palestinians now control.
Another Arab Israeli, Hassan Suliman, chairman of a committee that monitors the implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, called on Arafat "to put an end to this, and to act with a strong hand against those who committed these attacks, and to put an end, once and for all, to people of this sort."
Peres refused to answer questions about whether he might postpone national elections scheduled for May 29 or consider forming a government of unity with Likud, his chief rival. Holding his own news conference, a subdued Netanyahu called for national unity and restraint and pledged to support the government in whatever steps it takes to fight terror.
But pollsters said that the attacks have been politically devastating for Peres and the Labor Party that he leads. Polls conducted after the Feb. 25 bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon showed Peres virtually even with Netanyahu in the prime minister's race. They also showed Likud winning more parliamentary seats than Labor if elections were held immediately.
By contrast, when Peres decided in February to move elections up from October to May, he was leading Netanyahu in some polls by a 22-point margin. Labor and its left-wing allies were shown easily forming the next government.
"I can hardly conceive that Peres and Labor can recover from this in the short period that remains before the elections," veteran pollster Hanoch Smith said.
Peres said Sunday that peace talks between the government and the Palestinian Authority that were suspended after the Feb. 25 attacks will remain suspended for the time being. He left open the question of whether the government will withdraw its troops from the West Bank town of Hebron on March 26, as it is scheduled to do.
The government's first priority now, Peres said, is restoring a sense of personal security to Israelis and separating them as much as possible from the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Peres said he had already begun flooding the capital--shared uneasily by Jews and Arabs--with police and soldiers. He said the government will put hundreds more armed guards on buses and give more bus drivers courses on how to spot suicide bombers and keep them from boarding.