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Bombings Set Up Roadblocks to Peace

As the Israelis and Palestinians were inching back to negotiations, suicide attacks silence any talk of a cease-fire.

May 19, 2003|Ruth Morris and Megan K. Stack | Special to The Times

JERUSALEM — Morning darkness still clung to the roads early Sunday when Benny Binyamin pulled his bus out into the traffic of Route 6, headed down the hill toward his first stop -- and saw the bus ahead, driven by a friend and old army buddy, explode in the distance.

"I thought: 'This driver waved goodbye to me just a few minutes ago, and the passengers on that bus are my passengers too. I know them,' " Binyamin said later. "I couldn't watch it, and I drove on."

Moments after the explosion, though, he hit the brakes, then sat trembling and sweating until a passenger phoned for an ambulance.

Just as warring Israelis and Palestinians were inching tentatively back to long-abandoned peace talks, at least nine people were killed in a string of four suicide blasts in 48 hours. The attacks continued this morning as a suicide bomber blew himself up alongside an army patrol in the Gaza Strip, but failed to kill anyone else. Passengers of the No. 6 bus weren't so lucky. Seven were killed; about 20 were wounded.

"There can't be peace," said Binyamin, 54. "Just force."

It was a refrain spoken all over Jerusalem on Sunday, as mourners laid the newest bodies of the 32-month-old Palestinian uprising in the earth of Jerusalem's cemeteries. Talk of cease-fire and negotiations fell silent. Sirens screamed, roadblocks cropped up and, in the hot air hung a sense of deja vu -- and the dull fear that U.S. efforts to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace could end up backfiring and open a fresh chapter in the intifada.

"We're on the edge right now," said Michael Terrazi, legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization. "We can go in either direction. If the U.S. is serious, we could get out of [the intifada]. If they play into the hands of Palestinian extremists, it could get worse."

A day earlier, officials had been scraping together enthusiasm for a summit Saturday night between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. It was the first such high-level negotiation since fighting flared in September 2000.

But just at the two premiers were preparing to meet, the first bomb went off in the troubled streets of Hebron, in the West Bank, killing a Jewish settler and his pregnant wife. (The third, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, followed the blast on the No. 6 bus by about half an hour, but the bomber killed only himself.)

In any event, the talks did not go well. Israelis said they got the impression that Abbas was politically weaker than they had thought; Palestinians were angered by Israel's continued refusal to endorse a new U.S.-backed peace plan.

"Each side has a monologue," said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv and an expert in Palestinian politics. "What's needed is outside intervention."

But outside help could be long in coming. After the pair of dawn bombings, Sharon postponed a trip to Washington, where he was to discuss the so-called road map peace plan with President Bush on Tuesday. The three-phase plan calls for gradual Israeli withdrawal from positions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an all-out Palestinian campaign to stamp out terrorism. In its final phase, in 2005, the blueprint envisions a Palestinian state.

Flush with outrage, Israeli officials summoned reporters Sunday to view a gruesome video of corpses from the bus bombing. Afterward, spokesmen complained that Israel hasn't been tough enough in punishing terrorism, and blasted the Palestinian leadership for "moonlighting as a terror organization."

Israel was widely expected to strike back hard -- and soon. The West Bank and Gaza were closed Sunday night, and Palestinians were banned from traveling roads between Palestinian towns. In the Israeli government, scattered calls went out for an end to all ties with Palestinian officials. Other lawmakers called for negotiators to grit their teeth and keep talking.

Still urging peace despite his resignation last week as the Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat said: "If this opportunity is missed, God help the Israelis and the Palestinians. There's only one hope and that's President Bush."

Meanwhile, in a hospital bed in Jerusalem, a wounded 33-year-old engineer was trying to be optimistic.

"I don't necessarily think these talks will help, but I'm hopeful," said Yacov Engelberg. He was riding the No. 6 on Sunday morning and had bent over to take a book from his satchel just as the bomb went off. Although doctors were concerned about his hearing, reaching down may have saved him from serious injury.

The bomber, identified by Palestinians as a 19-year-old student from Hebron, disguised himself in a prayer shawl and skullcap. The militant Islamic organization Hamas took responsibility for the attack, which killed commuting blue-collar workers. Also among the victims was a Palestinian refugee.

Trapped and bleeding, passengers scrambled out through shattered windows. Blood covered the ceiling, corpses slumped in their seats, and a plume of sickly smoke hung in the air.

"I lost my glasses, so I didn't see too much," Engelberg said. "Maybe that was lucky."


Stack is a Times staff writer and Morris a special correspondent.

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