- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

TEL AVIV — A suicide bomber disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew blew up a commuter bus during the afternoon rush hour in downtown Jerusalem yesterday, killing 16 and wounding 70 in one of the deadliest incidents in the 32-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Israel retaliated with a missile attack in the Gaza Strip, killing two Hamas officials and five others and wounding 30.

Israel also launched a rocket attack in Gaza overnight, killing two members of Hamas in their car.

In the week since President Bush stood alongside Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Aqaba, Jordan, his plan to calm violence in the Middle East and restart peace talks has been overwhelmed by a string of attacks.

“It is clear there are people in the Middle East who hate peace,” Mr. Bush told reporters in Chicago. “I strongly condemn the killings, and I urge and call upon all of the free world, nations which love peace, to not only condemn the killings, but … to prevent them from happening in the future.”

The explosion occurred at 5:30 p.m. as municipal bus No. 14 made its way up Jaffa Road, which runs through the center of the city, and past the Mahane Yehuda open-air market — a target of suicide attacks in the past.

The blast blew out windows and hurled passengers from the red-and-white bus. It tore a large hole in the left side, peeled back the roof and set off a fire that blackened the inside.

Palestinians identified the bomber as Abdel Madi Shabneh, an 18-year-old high school student from the West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli soldiers began searching his house after sundown.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing, which came a day after Israel botched an attempt to assassinate Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the group.

The helicopter missile attack on Mr. Rantisi on Tuesday, which killed two Palestinians and wounded dozens, set off a round of international criticism and prompted pledges of revenge from Palestinian militants.

Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin yesterday called the bus bombing “a response to the occupation and its crimes.”

“The great crime of the attempt to assassinate Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi can’t be passed over in silence, and the perpetrators must be punished,” he said.

Israel’s retaliatory attack in Gaza City yesterday killed Hamas operatives Tito Massoud, 35, and Sufil Abu Nahaz, 29. Israeli security sources accused Mr. Massoud of overseeing the firing of Kassam rockets from Gaza into the Israeli city of Sderot.

Hours after the Jerusalem bombing, Israeli demonstrators shouted nearby: “No Arabs, no attacks.”

Israeli police Chief Shlomo Aharonishki conceded that his ability to prevent the attack was severely limited even though the force had been put on high alert to stop just such a strike.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged yesterday to continue to pursue Palestinian militants and their leaders while reiterating his government’s commitment to search for progress through peace negotiations.

A day earlier, Mr. Sharon had been publicly scolded by Mr. Bush for risking the fragile U.S. peace initiative with the attempt on Mr. Rantisi’s life.

Critics argued that the timing of the attack couldn’t have been worse, coming as Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas attempts to consolidate power and convince armed groups to observe a temporary cease-fire against Israel.

Hamas, which criticized Mr. Abbas for accepting the “road map,” last week walked out on cease-fire talks with him, and the resumption of the discussions seems as remote as ever.

Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, a member of the centrist Shinui Party, cautioned his prime minister against becoming caught in the Hamas trap of an endless cycle of revenge attacks.

“Hamas has enough patience to kill not only Israelis, but the peace process,” he said.

The latest cycle of violence began Sunday when gunmen from Hamas and two other militant groups killed four Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

The assassination attempt on Mr. Rantisi occurred Tuesday, and was followed by the suicide bombing yesterday and Israel’s retaliatory attack.

Given the events of the past four days, it was not clear how the United States could rekindle the momentum from the Aqaba talks.

Israel’s military has refused to relax travel restrictions in the West Bank and in Gaza, a key first step in the road map plan, citing security considerations.

And the evacuation of settler outposts has been held up by Israel’s Supreme Court.

Both steps are called for in the road map.

The upsurge in violence all but overshadowed an attempt by Egypt to help mediate the Palestinian cease-fire agreement, considered a linchpin for the initial success of the peace map.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman traveled to Ramallah to hold talks with Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat and other officials.

Mr. Arafat, in a televised address after the bombing, condemned the suicide strike as well as Israel’s assassination attempt. He called on the United States to force Israel to comply with its commitments under the road map.

“I condemn this just as I condemned the assassination attempt on brother Rantisi,” he said. “We all need to do our utmost to stop this deterioration and save the peace process.”

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