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6 Die in Mideast Violence as Pressure Mounts on Barak

Crisis: Rush-hour car bombing kills 2 Israelis. The army guns down 4 Palestinians at checkpoint.


JERUSALEM — In an upsurge of what both sides called "barbaric" violence, a powerful car bomb killed at least two Israelis during rush hour Wednesday and wounded dozens more, while a Palestinian militia leader and three others were cut down in a hail of Israeli army gunfire in the Gaza Strip.

The bombing in the northern coastal city of Hadera, which hurled pieces of a passenger bus into a row of busy shops and cafes, was the second terrorist attack in three days to claim Israeli lives. Israeli retaliation against Palestinian targets appeared imminent. Palestinians in Gaza evacuated police stations and military bases as they braced for the worst.

Wednesday's bloodshed further gutted hopes that Israel and the Palestinians could retreat from the brink of cataclysmic warfare and find a way to a cease-fire, much less get back to peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak blamed the Hadera attack on the Palestinian leadership and called an emergency Cabinet meeting, just as he did before the army launched a fierce missile barrage on Gaza two nights before in response to an earlier bus bombing. The Palestinian government's response also echoed its earlier response--denying involvement in but not condemning the blast.

To further complicate Barak's handling of the worst Middle East violence in years, thousands of Israelis rallied in downtown Jerusalem to demand the removal of the prime minister and a tougher crackdown on the Palestinians.

In Hadera, where witnesses described an explosion so powerful that it lifted the nearest bus, Local No. 7, off the ground, charred and twisted metal littered the street and sidewalks for several blocks, and windows and storefronts were shattered. Police said a car loaded with nail-studded explosives detonated at the height of the evening rush hour at the most congested stretch of Hanasi Street, a main shopping point where hundreds of people wait for buses to the north or other parts of the city.

"It was a terrible blast," said Eli Barnea, a commercial manufacturing agent who lives a short distance from the site of the bombing. "I saw a lot of smoke and fire. To tell you the truth, we expected this. I don't want to blame anybody without reason, but we live in a sensitive place, surrounded by Arab villages, and it's very easy to enter Hadera."

More than 55 people--Jews and at least two Israeli Arabs--were reported injured, including a woman whose legs were severed and an 18-month-old who was badly burned, said Dr. Meir Oren, director of Hadera's Hillel Yaffe Medical Center. The wounded included those who were sitting in second-floor apartments when debris came flying into their homes.

Alik Ron, commander of the northern police district, told reporters that the bomb appeared to have been detonated by remote control in a car with fake license plates. Apparently no one was inside the car when it blew up, he said. Hadera is about seven miles from the border with Palestinian-controlled territory.

"The Palestinian Authority encourages a mood of terrorism and encourages people to carry out such acts," Barak said in a statement. "Israel will settle the account with the perpetrators and those who sent them."

Government security officials, briefing Barak's Cabinet overnight, said the bombing was the work of the radical Islamic Jihad, members of which Arafat recently released from prison.

The bombing punctuated a day of bloodshed that began when Israeli soldiers at a Gaza Strip roadblock killed four Palestinians, including a 30-year-old militia leader accused of coordinating attacks against Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in recent weeks.

The killing ratcheted up the verbal hostility from Palestinian leaders, who promised revenge and denounced what they called the assassination of Jamal Abdel Razek and the three others.

Israeli army officials said soldiers opened fire only after the two-car convoy carrying Razek and the others tried to run a barricade on the road connecting the southern Gaza towns of Rafah and Khan Yunis. The roadblock near the Jewish settlement of Morag had been set up to catch Razek, reported the army, which said he was linked to the armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement.

"This is an Israeli massacre . . . done without any justification or any reasons on unarmed Palestinian civilians," said Maj. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaydeh, a Palestinian security force commander.

Razek, the nephew of a Palestinian Cabinet minister, was a Fatah leader in Rafah who had spent seven years in an Israeli prison for shooting and grenade attacks on Israeli authorities, army officials said. Palestinian officials maintained that Razek was on his way to his university classes in Khan Yunis, and that the others were along for the ride, when the Israelis opened fire with tank-mounted machine guns.

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