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Jerusalem Bombing Kills 4; Cease-Fire Talks Sidelined

Mideast: Israel cancels truce meeting and weighs reprisals. Arafat condemns suicide attack by Palestinian man on a busy downtown street.

March 22, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A Palestinian wearing a hooded jacket and a belt of nail-studded explosives waded into the crowds shopping on busy King George V Street in the heart of Jerusalem on Thursday. At the height of rush hour, he paused along a strip of stores and falafel stands and detonated his bomb, killing himself, three Israelis--and any chance of an imminent cease-fire agreement.

The thunderous explosion rocked downtown Jerusalem, shattered glass storefronts and sent people screaming in panic. Scores were wounded, several seriously.

A militia linked to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility--dooming, at least for now, U.S.-sponsored talks that were making tentative progress toward a cease-fire in nearly 18 months of spiraling violence. The Bush administration announced that it was placing the militia--the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade--on its list of terrorist organizations.

Israel canceled a meeting with the Palestinians that had been scheduled for Thursday night to discuss a truce. Instead, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened an emergency session of his security advisors to weigh reprisals.

It was the second suicide bombing in Israel in 36 hours. At the urging of U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni, Israel refrained from retaliation after the earlier bombing, an attack Wednesday on a packed passenger bus in northern Israel in which seven people were killed. Domestic pressure on Sharon to act now will be intense. Zinni joined Sharon and his advisors late Thursday, presumably to attempt to salvage his mission.

Early today, Sharon's office issued a statement indicating that there would be no new military action for now but warning that any restraint will be short-lived. It blamed Arafat directly and exclusively for continued attacks on Israelis.

Israeli officials said the bomber in Thursday's attack, identified as Mohammed Hashaikeh, 21, was a former police officer arrested last month by the Palestinian Authority because he was planning a suicide mission at a shopping mall. Palestinian authorities then released him from a jail in Ramallah when Israeli forces invaded the West Bank city last week. Israeli officials said this sequence of events underscores Arafat's refusal to rein in militants and prevent attacks even when they are predictable.

Arafat Expresses Hope for a Cease-Fire

Arafat, clearly worried about Israeli retaliation and under stiff U.S. pressure, took the unusual step of publicly condemning Thursday's attack. He brought journalists to his headquarters in Ramallah and read a statement in Arabic pledging to take "immediate measures" to end attacks on Israeli civilians. He said he hoped to see a cease-fire enacted soon.

Later, he convened the leaders of various Palestinian factions and reportedly demanded that they stop hitting Israeli civilians.

Hashaikeh was standing amid a large group of pedestrians when he blew himself up about 4:15 p.m. He chose a sidewalk of King George V Street along a strip of candy, shoe and clothing stores and small restaurants. This downtown commercial district is always busy but was especially so on a Thursday afternoon before the coming week's Passover holiday.

"He was smiling the whole time, and he kept looking back over his shoulder," Adi Iluz, who was waiting at a bus stop about a block away, told Israeli television.

"I could see he looked suspicious," said another witness, who gave his name as Yisrael. "I wanted to call the police but didn't have enough time. He just exploded, and arms and legs flew all over the place."

Bloodied passersby were thrown to the ground. A child lay "like a piece of wood," in the words of one witness. Limbs, pieces of flesh and one head, apparently of the bomber, were scattered about. Windows on both sides of the four-lane avenue were shattered.

Ambulances and police cars, sirens wailing, converged on the scene. Some of the wounded were loaded on gurneys that medics then ferried by foot several blocks to the nearest hospital.

There were conflicting reports from witnesses about whether the bomber had just stepped off a bus or had been delivered to King George V Street by car. A number of Palestinians in the area were arrested for questioning, police spokesman Gil Kleiman said, and some of them had to be rescued from the angry crowds.

Revenge, Not Peace, on Most Minds

Later, as the cold, damp afternoon turned to dusk, volunteers from Israel's religious burial society scoured the streets for victims' remains. Blood even spattered a third-story balcony, where an ultra-Orthodox man could be seen rocking back and forth in prayer.

Stretched across the front of one of the buildings, just above where the bomber blew up, was a political banner from a leftist party. "The occupation kills. We want to live in peace."

But revenge, not peace, was on the minds of most people.

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