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On a Quiet Israel Road, a Bus Ride Ends in Carnage

June 06, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEGIDDO, Israel -- Mickey Harel drove the same road Wednesday that he always drives through these piney hills. And just like any other dawn, the soldiers he picked up at daybreak dozed and daydreamed in the back of the crowded bus.

The driver knew the Israeli soldiers, their faces and their schedules, where they climbed aboard and where they hopped down. "They were wonderful," he said. The young people in their smart khakis reminded him of his sons, and of his younger days fighting in the 1967 Middle East War.

Harel felt the bomb before he heard it, as if some great hand had given the bus a hard shove from behind. He knew what it meant--it wasn't his first brush with suicide bombings. This time, a Palestinian teenager had roared up in a stolen vehicle packed with homemade explosives, pulled alongside the bus' gasoline tank and blown himself up.

The Wednesday morning blast on a northern Israel roadway was the deadliest attack since March: 17 passengers were killed, and more than 30 hospitalized. Most of the commuters were young soldiers, in their late teens and early 20s, on their way to the military bases sprinkled throughout this predominantly Arab farmland. They burned to death at a crossroads whose name is Hebrew for Armageddon.

In Gaza City, the radical group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack on the "Zionist bus." According to a statement by group leader Sheik Abdullah Shami, the bombing was meant to mark the 35th anniversary of the Middle East War, in which Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

"We say to the enemy, we will continue to destroy the protective shield [that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon talks about," the statement said. "They will never enjoy security as long as occupation exists in our land."

The bomber, 17-year-old Hamza Samudi, drove here from the nearby West Bank city of Jenin, according to Islamic Jihad. By midday, dozens of Israeli tanks had rolled into Jenin. Early today, tanks rumbled to the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah and unleashed a torrent of shells and gunfire.

Arafat had earlier condemned the Megiddo attack and declared that his Palestinian Authority "has no link to and no information about, nor does its security apparatus have ties or information" about the explosion.

It is apricot season here in Megiddo, a land whose honeyed light, cool winds and watermelon fields belie its turbulent politics.

A short drive to the south, the hills of Israel give way to the hills of the West Bank. This quiet countryside has been the backdrop for a string of suicide bombings and shootings.

Harel has witnessed explosions before, involving two of his fellow drivers' buses. Another time, he watched as a radical Palestinian disguised as a soldier pulled a gun, opened fire and mowed down four passengers at a bus station. Other drivers teased him about his brushes with death. "You have an attraction to it," they said.

"I kept getting through it," Harel said. "But this time.... "

Wednesday's blast was strong enough to lift his bus off the pavement and make a gas station a mile up the road shudder. Charred chunks of steel sailed far and wide into flowered slopes. This stretch of road runs in front of a military prison with a large population of Palestinian inmates. When the prisoners heard the blast, they broke out into cheers, guards said.

Steel siding from the blasted bus was tangled in the barbed wire on the outskirts of the prison yard.

After the bomb exploded inside Samudi's vehicle, the gas tank of the bus followed suit. The bus skidded to one side, then the other, flipped, then grated along the road. Harel grabbed at the wheel, but it was useless. By the time the vehicle came to rest, there was fire everywhere, roaring and strong.

"It lit up instantly," a prison guard named Andre told Army Radio. "People were escaping like ants."

Soldiers kicked open the doors, leaped through shattered windows, rolled and stomped to squelch the flames.

"I don't know how I got up--I just got up and walked," said Meital Mordechai, an 18-year-old soldier whose right eye was badly burned in the blast.

In the front of the bus, Harel jumped out a broken window. There was smoky pandemonium all over the scorched roadway--bleeding soldiers gaped, too shocked to move. "I did what I could," the driver said. "I dragged them to the side of the road." Those who weren't quick enough died in the flaming bus. Witnesses described a couple who embraced as they burned to death.

Mordechai switched bus lines months back, after a suicide bomber struck the route she used to ride to work. Like many Israelis, she lives under the vague logic that lightning can--and probably will--strike twice in the same place. Everything is safe, until, one day, it isn't. On Wednesday morning, Mordechai awoke in her parents' house, showered and headed into the sunny morning for the bus stop. She missed the first bus, so she waited around for another one to rumble up the road from Tel Aviv. Hours later, spread flat on a hospital cot with a patch over her eye, she explained the logical remedy. "Now I won't take this bus anymore," she said.

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