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THE MIDDLE EAST

Bomber Slips by Police; 7 Israelis Killed

Mideast: The suicide blast in Jerusalem is the second in two days and comes after Sharon implements his new anti-terror strategy.

June 20, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK and MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JERUSALEM -- A suicide bomber eluded heavy security and blew himself up next to a busy bus stop here during the evening rush hour Wednesday, killing seven Israelis and underscoring the frustration Israel faces in its efforts to thwart terrorism.

The second suicide bombing in two days took place even as the Israeli government was implementing a new strategy that calls for reoccupying parts of the West Bank as a deterrent against further attacks. Israel retaliated for the latest attack by firing on targets in the Gaza Strip from helicopter gunships.

Witnesses and the Israeli army reported early today that Israeli troops had moved into Beitunia, a suburb of the West Bank city of Ramallah. The army said it also entered the West Bank town of Bethlehem and a refugee camp there, Dahaisha, and declared a curfew for both.

With the spiraling violence once again frustrating diplomacy, President Bush shelved plans for a major speech in which he had been expected to call for the creation of an interim Palestinian state. Administration officials said Bush had not changed his opinion, but believed the timing was not right given the latest attacks.

"It's hard to get people to focus on peace today when there's still suffering from the consequences of terrorism as we speak," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

The White House was clearly angered by yet another deadly attack, which will only make selling the Bush plan harder in the Middle East and at home.

"Terrorists put everybody at hostage," Fleischer said. "The terrorists are vetoing the peace process that would benefit the Palestinian people the most."

Making the tragedy even more frustrating was the fact that the latest bombing took place at one of the most heavily guarded junctions in Jerusalem--in a neighborhood called French Hill--in full view of at least four police officers, who were unable to stop it. Still burying the dead from the bombing the day before, the city had been girded for attack, with authorities and wary residents well aware that a suicide bomber was on the prowl.

The police and bystanders saw the bomber jump out of a car across the street and sprint to the bus stop, but they weren't quick enough to catch him before he detonated the explosive.

Keren Boyko, 13, who was being treated for shock Wednesday night at a Jerusalem hospital, said she doesn't take buses anymore. However, she and her mother happened to be driving by the bus stop on their way home from a tennis game. The blast popped open the trunk of their car and sent a severed hand flying across the windshield.

"I was screaming that we have to go home, but my mother stopped the car to help and when she got out she almost stepped on the hand," cried Boyko. "I'm so scared. I don't go on buses.''

"Nobody has the feeling anymore that it can't happen to them," said her mother, Ilana Boyko, nodding.

The latest victims reportedly include a 2-year-old girl and a young boy, according to Israeli radio.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement to news organizations.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack. Associated Press reported this morning that it had obtained an advance copy of a speech Arafat plans to deliver later today calling on his people to halt suicide attacks, saying the attacks are allowing Israel to reoccupy Palestinian-controlled lands.

French Hill is a tidy bedroom community of apartments and townhouses that were built by Israel on lands captured from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War and is a similar neighborhood to Gilo, south of Jerusalem, where a suicide bomber killed 19 other people Tuesday morning on a bus. It was unclear, however, whether the bombers had targeted those neighborhoods or were simply seeking crowded places where they could inflict the maximum bloodshed.

Israel launched military operations Wednesday in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, firing rockets from helicopter gunships into Gaza and raiding several West Bank towns. Two Israeli soldiers, one of them an officer, and at least one Palestinian were killed in a gun battle in the West Bank town of Kalkilya, the Israeli army reported. It said four more soldiers were injured.

Earlier Wednesday morning, before the latest bombing, the Israeli government released a statement saying it was adopting a new strategy in which it will seize swaths of Palestinian territory and hold them until the terrorism stops. It appears that the first examples of the new approach are in Kalkilya and Jenin, two West Bank hotbeds of Islamic militancy.

In Jenin, witnesses said the Israeli army moved mobile homes on flatbed trucks and other equipment into an area near a refugee camp by the city as though preparing for a lengthy stay.

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