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Bus Blast in Israel Kills 16

Army Retaliates; Violence Endangers Peace Effort / A suicide bomber strikes at rush hour on a busy Jerusalem street. Later, two missile attacks in the Gaza Strip claim 10 Palestinian lives.

June 12, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A suicide attacker dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded a rush-hour city bus Wednesday evening and detonated a nail-packed bomb that killed 16 other people, wounded scores and left many Israelis wondering whether the latest quest for Mideast peace is anything more than an empty dream.

In a pattern that has haunted the conflict, Israel quickly retaliated with two strikes targeting Palestinian extremists, killing four of them and six other Palestinians. Since last week's peace summit, 46 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed.

"My heart is too small for this -- for this much suffering, and for hope to fit together with it," said Ofer Siso, a 32-year-old Jerusalem resident who heard the thunderous blast from his stall in a nearby covered market that has itself been the scene of several attacks. "All we can do is go forward, but the way is so hard."

A week after President Bush presided over handshakes and promises by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to seek a negotiated accord, both sides spoke Wednesday of the need to press ahead with the U.S.-backed "road map" -- but also to halt the spiraling violence, for which each increasingly blames the other.

Bush, who had issued a rare rebuke to Israel over Tuesday's assassination attempt against a senior leader of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, condemned Wednesday's bombing and appealed to all nations to cut off financial assistance to terrorist groups and "isolate those who hate so much they are willing to kill."

The president, who has made implementing the peace plan a "matter of the highest priority," is facing increasing pressure to come up with bolder solutions to help bring the conflict under control.

Hamas, which had vowed to take revenge for the attempt on Abdulaziz Rantisi's life, did not immediately make an official claim of responsibility for the bus attack. But the bomber -- identified as Abdel Madi Shabneh, 18 -- was known to have ties to the group, and a Hamas spokesman said the attack was justified.

"This bombing is considered as legal resistance from our people and their right to defend themselves against Zionist escalation," Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh said.

The bomber struck at 5:20 p.m., at the height of the evening rush hour, on one of the busiest stretches of Jerusalem's main downtown artery, Jaffa Street. In a familiar tableau of carnage, rescue workers, police officers and soldiers swarmed around the shattered, smoke-blackened bus, stopped dead in its tracks by the force of the explosion.

Behind swiftly erected police barricades, a crush of onlookers frantically tried to ascertain the safety of loved ones. "Where is Irit? Where is she, where is she?" one woman shouted into a cell phone, sobbing.

In shops and cars, people turned up the volume on radios blaring news bulletins. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in bright yellow reflective vests searched the sidewalk for the victims' remains to ensure that the dead received proper religious burials.

Less than an hour after the bus bombing, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a car carrying two Hamas militants in the northern Gaza Strip, killing them and six passersby -- two of them women. Around midnight, Apache helicopters again took to the skies and fired at a car carrying two more militants, killing both of them, Palestinian witnesses said.

Israeli authorities identified one of the militants as Tito Massaoud, who they said had been organizing the firing of Kassam rockets at Israeli towns.

Sharon said Israeli forces would relentlessly hunt down those who carried out attacks against Israelis.

"Israel will continue to fight Palestinian terror organizations and their leaders ... whose purpose, as we saw again this evening, is to murder Jews," said the prime minister, speaking at a ceremony honoring paramilitary border police. At the same time, he declared himself "deeply committed to pursue every effort to move ahead in the process that we hope will bring us calm and peace."

The bombing and its aftermath brought a glimpse of the complex interplay between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Abbas, whom Arafat appointed under intense U.S. pressure.

Although sidelined diplomatically, Arafat still wields considerable power and prestige among Palestinians, while Abbas in the past week has been snubbed by groups such as Hamas in his attempts to negotiate a truce and has been criticized by his people for not being tough enough at the summit with Sharon and Bush.

After the bombing, Arafat summoned reporters to his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah and read a statement in which he denounced "the terrorist operation aimed at Israeli civilians in Jerusalem today" but also called Israeli's missile strike against Hamas leader Rantisi a "terrorist operation."

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