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Israel Pounds Gaza Strip After Fatal School Bus Blast

Mideast: In escalation, rockets hit Palestinian sites. Arafat denies responsibility for attack on Jews.

November 21, 2000|MARY CURTIUS and SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip — Firing from the air and sea, Israel unleashed a barrage of missiles on the Gaza Strip on Monday in swift retaliation for an attack on a school bus that killed two Jewish settlers and wounded nine others, including three young siblings who lost limbs.

Israeli combat helicopters and warships targeted the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement, his bodyguard unit, radio and television transmitting towers, and several police and militia posts, sending panicked residents running into the streets and plunging much of Gaza City into darkness. Rockets slammed into the city center and into police targets in several refugee camps. One Palestinian security agent was reported killed and dozens of other people wounded, most suffering minor injuries.

The assault--the fiercest yet by Israel in nearly eight weeks of deadly conflict--came in response to what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under increasing pressure to get tough, branded a "barbaric" terrorist attack: the bombing earlier Monday of an armored bus taking Jewish settler children and their teachers to school.

Arafat's government was unusually quick to deny responsibility for the blast. But Israeli authorities pinned the blame directly on Fatah militants loyal to Arafat and Palestinian security forces who have taken a growing role in anti-Israel violence. After nightfall, Israel struck back.

A prime target in the air raids appeared to be the headquarters of Col. Mohammed Dahlan, head of security in Gaza and accused by some Israelis of complicity in a string of terrorist bombings. One of his security force's buildings was hit at least 12 times from three directions, witnesses said.

"This is a continuation of the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people," Dahlan told reporters late Monday. He spoke in a Gaza City building and forbade the reporters from broadcasting news of his appearance until after he had departed, flanked by bodyguards. "There are huge losses here tonight. This shelling will not bring peace to the two peoples."

Arafat, who was in Gaza at the time of the rocketing, "is well and in a safe place," Dahlan said.

Barak has come under increasing pressure from many Israelis to hit the Palestinians harder as a way to quell the violence, which has claimed more than 230 lives, about 90% of them Palestinian. For many of these Israelis, the bus bombing was the last straw. Hundreds rallied Monday night outside Barak's Jerusalem home, demanding new elections to dump the prime minister and burning posters of Arafat under the heading "Murderer."

In the past, Arafat has blamed terrorist attacks on extremists out of his control, an explanation that Israeli governments have accepted. Now, however, Israeli officials say Arafat's recent decision to release men convicted in terrorist acts shifts the responsibility back to the Palestinian Authority president.

In Monday's bus attack, a shrapnel-spewing 120-millimeter mortar was detonated by remote control alongside an Israeli-controlled road heavily traveled by Jewish settlers who live inside the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers reported seeing what they said were three Palestinians fleeing after the explosion.

Neither the armored panels nor the bulletproof glass that reinforced the bus could completely protect the children and teachers of the Kfar Darom settlement, who were making their morning trip to a nearby elementary school.

The force of the blast killed two teachers and wounded nine other passengers, including five children, three of them critically. The three were siblings, ranging in age from 7 to 12, who had been sitting together.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Yaniv Peretz, the first Israeli army medic to arrive on the scene. Shrapnel tore 5-inch holes through the bus' steel frame.

Peretz found the two teachers dead near the front of the bus and wounded children and adults screaming in pain and panic. "I found a mother who had lost a leg who was crying for her child. I found the child, who was also wounded, and put him together with the mother to calm her," Peretz said. He tended the wounded until ambulances from the settlements arrived.

The oldest of the injured siblings, 12-year-old Tehila Cohen, lost both legs. Officials later brought Tehila together with her injured brother and sister, Israel and Orit, in the intensive-care unit so that they could comfort one another. Orit had a leg reattached during surgery, according to a doctor at Beersheba's Soroka Hospital.

The Palestinians' goal, Orit later told Israeli television "is to kill us and to make us fear going to school. Now I'm afraid to go to school."

Meir Daifani, whose daughter Matanya was wounded on the bus, said: "Our children are the brave who guard the borders of our country. Our leaders are the cowards who abandon the land."

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