- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

AZUR, Israel A Palestinian driver upset about weeks of Mideast violence rammed his bus into a packed bus stop yesterday, killing seven Israeli soldiers and a civilian in the deadliest Palestinian attack in almost four years.

The hit-and-run raised fears that violence was spinning out of control when prospects for a resumption of peace talks appear remote. The attack shook Israel at a time of political transition and accelerated efforts by Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon and his defeated predecessor, Ehud Barak, to form a joint government.

Mr. Sharon said he would take all necessary steps to restore security once he takes office. In a first move ordered by Mr. Barak, Israel sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip by air, land and sea and confined Palestinians to their communities.

President Bush condemned the "terrible act of violence" and expressed his condolences in a call to Mr. Barak.

On Tuesday, the Bush administration criticized Israel's targeted killing of a member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's elite security force with a pinpoint missile strike. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher faulted both Israeli and Palestinian tactics for what he called a serious deterioration of the security situation that Washington was watching closely.

"The use of Israeli helicopter gunships, Palestinian attacks against settlements and motorists, the use of mortars by Palestinians and the targeted killings by the Israeli Defense Force … are producing a new cycle of action or reaction which can become impossible to control," Mr. Boucher said.

He said Secretary of State Colin Powell, who makes his first trip to the troubled Middle East next week, had spoken several times "about the need to avoid these kind of actions."

Israel's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said Israelis and Palestinians may face a full-blown guerrilla war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Already, 400 persons have been killed in five months of gunbattles, stone-throwing clashes and shooting ambushes.

Yesterday's attack, the deadliest in Israel since July 1997, took place shortly before 8 a.m. while dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians crowded a bus stop in Azur, just south of Tel Aviv.

Without warning, Khalil Abu Olbeh, a 35-year-old driver from Gaza City, crashed his bus into the group at high speed. "The bus was moving slowly, and suddenly it speeded up and drove into the soldiers," said Ayelet Cohen-Natan, a witness. "One of them was thrown up into a tree and fell to the ground."

Abu Olbeh sped away, leading police on a high-speed chase that ended 22 miles later when an officer wounded him with a shot to the chest, prompting him to crash into a truck. The impact ripped off the front of the bus and trapped the assailant.

At the scene of the attack, backpacks and jackets were strewn across the sidewalk. A soldier's boot lay on the asphalt. Blanket-covered bodies were lined up along the curb, each marked with a number.

White-gloved ultra-Orthodox volunteers from a burial society picked through remains, collecting body parts and placing them in plastic bags to comply with a Jewish religious requirement that corpses be as complete as possible at burial.

Among the dead were seven young soldiers, including Ofir Magidish, 20, and David Elouz, 21, boyhood friends from Kiryat Malachi, a town south of Tel Aviv. The two had missed the regular bus to their army base and were waiting for another. Also killed was 21-year-old Julie Weiner, an immigrant from Paris.

In a call to Israeli radio, the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also claimed responsibility in an announcement from a speaker truck that drove through Gaza City after nightfall.

Abu Olbeh's relatives said he had no ties to any Palestinian faction but was distraught over the large number of Palestinian casualties in clashes with Israel.

The father of five had been driving Palestinian laborers from Gaza to jobs in Israel for the past five years as an employee of the Israeli bus company Egged. Israel's Shin Bet security service issued him annual security clearances.

Abu Olbeh was among 15,000 Palestinians who had been permitted to return to their jobs two weeks ago after Israel had eased an earlier closure of the Palestinian areas. As a family man past his 20s, he did not fit Israel's profile of potential assailants.

After yesterday's attack, all crossings from the West Bank and Gaza to Israel, Jordan and Egypt were sealed again, and Israel shut down the Palestinian airport. Exceptions were made for about 8,000 Palestinians embarking on the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Arafat gave conflicting reactions, saying at first the attack was a response to "Israel's military escalation, which has a direct effect on the feelings of all the Palestinian people." Later, he said it may have been an accident and that he opposed violence, regardless of the circumstances, but did not refer directly to the attack.

Mr. Powell called Mr. Arafat, who told him he had condemned "the killings, and the violence and the bus attack that took place today," Mr. Boucher said.

Israel held Mr. Arafat responsible for the escalation.

"The Palestinian Authority is encouraging terrorists to leave its territory and strike in Israel," said Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, Israel's armed forces chief of staff.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who had once advocated far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians in peace talks, warned that Mr. Arafat's government was headed for collapse.

"If I were Arafat, I would not only fight terrorism as it ought to be fought, which he is not doing, but I would be worried about my own shaky regime," Mr. Ben-Ami said.

Later yesterday, negotiators for Mr. Sharon and Mr. Barak resumed coalition talks amid reports that the two sides were moving closer to a draft agreement. Mr. Barak's Labor Party has agreed that as a junior partner in Mr. Sharon's government it would drop aspirations for a final peace deal with the Palestinians and aim only for a partial accord.

Labor negotiator Haim Ramon said yesterday's attack "illustrated the reality in which a national unity government is a vital need." He said both sides were trying to wrap up talks as quickly as possible.

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