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Arafat, CIA Chief Discuss Security

Mideast: Palestinian leader's plan to reform the bloated system leaves his people and Israel skeptical. In latest violence, a bus explodes.

June 05, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — At least 14 people were reported killed early today when a car packed with explosives blew up alongside a crowded bus during the morning rush hour in north-central Israel, authorities said.

Dozens more were wounded in the blast, which came just hours after CIA Director George J. Tenet met in the West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to discuss ways to reshape the Palestinians' tangled and ineffective security forces. U.S. officials are demanding, among other things, that Palestinian police agencies fight terrorism.

But in northern Israel this morning, the scene was a familiar one of carnage. Bus No. 830, many of its passengers soldiers on their way to work, was making its daily cross-country run from Tel Aviv on the coast to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee. At the Megiddo junction about halfway along the route, a car presumably driven by a Palestinian suicide bomber sidled up to the bus and blew up, police said.

Army Radio reported 14 people killed. Many of the dead were believed to have been soldiers.

The car was a crumpled mass of metal, and the bus fared even worse; little was left of it beyond a charred skeleton that was still smoldering 11/2 hours after the blast. Bloodied debris was strewn along the highway's median; emergency workers lined up black body bags on the side of the road.

"The scene is very serious, this is an incident with a very large number of casualties," northern Israeli police commander Yaakov Borovsky told reporters. "A car drove alongside a bus, and the result was very, very serious."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his security Cabinet to discuss the attack, which overshadowed Tenet's efforts to defuse tensions here.

Even before the bombing, and as Tenet met with Arafat at his Ramallah compound still littered with sandbags from this spring's prolonged siege, neither Palestinians nor Israelis held out much hope that the famously autocratic Palestinian leader would institute profound reforms in his security bureaucracy.

"Arafat won't even change his jacket," said a Palestinian government minister who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You think he will change his Cabinet?"

Acknowledging that the security apparatus has grown bloated, Arafat agreed to trim the services from about a dozen branches to six. He also called up a 73-year-old onetime general, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, from retirement to become security chief. Before the 1993 Oslo peace accords led to the creation of a Palestinian government, Yehiyeh headed the exiled Palestinian National Army in Jordan.

The choice of the aging general over younger, more ambitious upstarts such as Mohammed Dahlan, security chief for the Gaza Strip, raised concerns that Arafat plans to keep tight control over the forces by appointing a weak deputy.

"Reforms that have no substantial change in strategy and policy are worthless," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Sharon.

Both in Israel and in Ramallah, Arafat's headquarters, the Palestinian security services are already regarded with varying degrees of cynicism.

Sharon's government complains that Palestinian intelligence officers are more interested in helping militants wage renegade attacks on Israel than in cracking down on political violence.

And on Palestinian turf--where suicide bombers often are celebrated as martyrs and Israel reviled as an enemy--security forces are often written off as corrupt and even, at times, as acquiescent to Israeli wishes. Beginning in 1995, Palestinians watched their security officers patrol alongside Israeli soldiers. Many Palestinians were also disappointed when the security apparatus failed to rise up in an organized fashion against Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's five-week military incursion this spring into the West Bank.

In the thick of some of the region's worst violence in years, Arafat spent five weeks besieged by Israelis in his sprawling Ramallah compound during the incursion. The main entrance is still choked shut by mounds of dirt and crushed cars, so a convoy of American trucks made its way past a swarm of chanting protesters Tuesday morning to the back door. Tenet disappeared inside for a three-hour, closed-door meeting.

Arafat reportedly urged the CIA director to put a halt to Israel's crackdown on Palestinian territory. For months, soldiers have systematically clamped Palestinian towns under curfew, rounded up hundreds of suspects and searched homes in an effort to head off suicide bombings and find militants. Palestinian authorities argue that the security apparatus can't do its job when the region is paralyzed by roadblocks and lockdowns.

The U.S. has been struggling to coax the two factions back toward peace negotiations but to little effect. Sharon, who is due in Washington next week, has said that meaningful reform of the Palestinian Authority is impossible as long as Arafat stays in power.

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