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THE WORLD | THE MIDDLE EAST

The Force of a Death Wish Hits City Hard

June 19, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — The bespectacled graduate student waited on the curb of a working-class neighborhood for the No. 32 bus, then scrambled up the steps behind an elderly Jewish man. Mohammed Ghoul was 22. He wore red Tuesday, clutched a bomb stuffed with nails and went forth into the brilliant morning "to kill and be killed."

The bus that crawled through the bleating traffic on the outskirts of Jerusalem was crowded with schoolchildren, older students and blue-collar workers nearing retirement. A pregnant woman. The Israeli president's longtime maid. A fifth-grade girl on her way to school in Valley of the Cross.

There was something odd about this urgent young newcomer, many passengers thought. He climbed aboard too fast. He didn't pay his fare.

"He looked like a terrorist," 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Lasri said. "Like I thought a terrorist should look."

But it was a moment too quick for thought. Tugged by instinct--later, in his hospital cot, he called it "God's hand"--Lasri lunged for the floor beneath his seat and blacked out.

The boom of the explosion echoed for blocks around.

"Everything flew," said Shlomi Kalderon, a tow-truck driver who was idling behind the No. 32 at a jammed intersection.

At least 19 people besides the bomber died. Come nightfall, scores lay wounded in Jerusalem's hospitals. In more than 20 gory months of intifada, months that have left cafes empty and children jumpy, that have strewn carnage and paranoia in the rough streets of this ancient limestone city--in all that time, this was the deadliest attack to strike Jerusalem. It was, in fact, the deadliest in six years.

Residents of this city have slipped in and out of war for decades, have taken turns on both ends of brutal siege, have split and revolted and conquered and lost. Now fear tinges the shaded streets again. It is of the incessant, escalating attacks by Palestinian militants.

On their side, militant groups say that Israel will not--and should not--live peacefully so long as it occupies Palestinian territory. For months, Palestinian cities and towns have suffered raids and sieges by Israeli soldiers, tanks and helicopters. The Palestinians have seen their homes bulldozed, their infrastructure destroyed and their neighbors shot for breaking curfew. Simple trips to work or to visit family have become arduous, even impossible, amid roadblocks, curfews and raids.

"How beautiful it is to kill and to be killed," read a suicide note from Ghoul, an earnest student of Islam apparently associated with the militant Islamic group Hamas. "Not to love death, but to struggle for life, to kill and be killed for the lives of the coming generation."

When Ghoul set off his bomb, Kalderon's windshield shattered. He'd just dropped his daughters off at nursery school. He tripped from the cab of his truck and stumbled agape toward the wreckage.

"But the sights at my feet were too horrific," he said later. "I had to step back and calm down. It was huge. People were lying with their eyes open."

On a crossroads slicked with blood, rush hour stood still. Bits of flesh, broken glass and twisted metal had been flung in a wide circle. Inside the blasted bus, corpses sat dead in their seats. Hysteria set in.

"Where's my sister?" a woman screamed at rescue workers.

"You see? You see? You see?" a Jewish schoolboy in an oxford shirt and skullcap screamed at foreign journalists. He stumbled and kept yelling. "You see?"

When Lasri blinked back into consciousness, there was nothing overhead but a deep blue sky. The roof of the bus had been peeled and curled back like the lid of a sardine can. He looked around. Limbs, bones and purses cluttered the street. It's like television, he thought. He couldn't move.

Lasri attends a technical high school. On Tuesday, he overslept, then raced to catch his bus. He planned to spend the day tinkering with a remote control car for a science fair. Instead, somebody dragged him from the wreckage and drove him to the hospital.

"They want to kill us, don't you see?" he said, running a hand over his scabbed forehead. Beside him, his mother nodded gently.

It was a few hours after the attack, and social workers wove among the cots and gurneys of the hospital, bringing bad news to the injured. Across the way, they were telling a wounded young boy that his older sister had died in the attack. Soon they would come to Michael and tell him that his friend had been killed. His parents and uncle already knew. "It's not a question of land," the boy said. "They want to see us dead."

The day dragged on. Soldiers set up roadblocks all over town, and traffic wheezed along under the baking sun. Arik Feldman, managing director of the Egged bus company, asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to recruit 3,000 unemployed Israelis to work as security guards on buses.

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