- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

JERUSALEM A powerful car bomb battered a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem yesterday, causing extensive damage but wounding only one person, in what a Palestinian militant group said was a welcoming gift for Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon.

"This is the first message to the criminal and fascist Sharon in response to his program and arrogant statements," said a statement signed in the name of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Forces, a previously unknown group.

Mr. Sharon, who had outlined his proposals for new peace talks in a letter to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat earlier yesterday, said after the blast that there would be no negotiations until the anti-Israel violence ceased.

"What happened today is another tragic event which demands we all unite to act with determination against terror," Mr. Sharon told reporters.

"Negotiations for peace are very important, and the government I head will make every effort to make peace. But the condition for peace negotiations is an end to terror and violence," he said.

Mr. Sharon spent most of yesterday in meetings aimed at forging a coalition with Mr. Barak's Labor party, which has all but crumbled since Tuesday's election. Mr. Barak lost to Mr. Sharon by 25 percentage points the biggest margin ever in an Israeli election.

Mr. Sharon wants Labor to join his Likud party in a "national unity" government, fearing that a narrow right-wing coalition would be chronically unstable.

Several key Labor lawmakers oppose linking up with Mr. Sharon, but insiders said the first round of coalition talks appeared promising.

In Washington, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned Mr. Arafat and other Middle Eastern leaders trying to ensure a continued dialogue among countries in the region.

White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said Mr. Bush told Mr. Arafat that the United States remained committed to a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The president also spoke to Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, she said.

Richard Boucher, the spokesman for Mr. Powell, said the secretary had spoken to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mr. Arafat, Tunisian President Zine El Abidie Ben Ali and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on how to move toward peace in the region.

In all his conversations, Mr. Powell has been "urging moderation, urging restraint, stressing the importance of working with the parties," Mr. Boucher said.

The 30-pound bomb, left in the trunk of a stolen car, exploded at 4:40 p.m. in a residential part of the Mea Shearim neighborhood, near apartment buildings and seminaries where students study the Old Testament for hours at a time.

Most residents were indoors when the bomb blew up, hurling fragments of glass and twisted metal as far as a block away. One woman, who was standing in a nearby shop, suffered light injuries and nine others were treated for shock.

A statement claiming responsibility said the attack was carried out in the memory of more than 800 Palestinians massacred at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in 1982.

Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel carried out the Sabra and Shatilla massacre during an Israeli invasion of Lebanon orchestrated by Mr. Sharon. Serving then as defense minister, Mr. Sharon was forced to step down when an Israeli commission ruled he had indirect responsibility for the killings.

Men in Mea Shearim, dressed in traditional frock coats and black hats, poured into the streets after yesterday's bombing to catch a glimpse of the wreckage. Many of them said God had prevented a bigger calamity.

"The whole building shook when the bomb went off," said Moshe Groman, who lives on the third floor of an apartment building directly above the scene of the explosion. "I went to the window and looked down and saw a ball of fire," he said as he stepped over glass fragments from his shattered windows.

From his window, the exploded car looked like a skeleton of black metal. At least three other cars parked in the vicinity were badly damaged.

"There's only one reason people were not killed," said Jason Cohen, a 19-year-old American who studies at the Mir yeshiva near where the bomb went off. "It's because the Almighty guards over those who study Torah."

Part of Mea Shearim touches East Jerusalem, where Palestinians live alongside Israelis in an often tense state of coexistence.

Many Palestinians work in the bakeries and shops that dot Mea Shearim. Two years ago, they were targeted by an Israeli serial stabber who struck at least 10 times.

Mr. Sharon, who has opposed most Arab-Israeli peace agreements in his 25-year political career, told Mr. Arafat in his letter that future talks would be based on long-standing U.N. resolutions.

"Israel will strive to achieve peace and security on the basis of the principle of solving disputes in peaceful ways and in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338," a senior Israeli political official quoted the letter as saying.

Palestinian officials confirmed the content of the letter and said Mr. Arafat was happy to hear Mr. Sharon invoking the U.N. decisions, which say Israel should exchange land captured in the 1967 war for peace with the Arabs.

But Mr. Sharon has already said he would not offer Palestinians anything like what his predecessor, Mr. Barak, offered a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, and parts of East Jerusalem.

• Ben Barber contributed to this report in Washington.

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