- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 21, 2012

TEL AVIV — A bomb exploded aboard an Israeli bus near the nation’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, wounding 27 people, delivering a major blow to diplomatic efforts to forge a truce to end a week of fighting between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers. Thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in Gaza fearing Israeli airstrikes.

Hours after the bus blast, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is shuttling across the region in truce talks, arrived in Cairo and met with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who is mediating between Israel and Hamas to end the fighting that has killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis.

The blast, which left the bus charred and its windows blown out, was the first bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006. It appeared aimed at sparking Israeli fears of a return to the violence of the Palestinian uprising last decade, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis in bombings and shooting attacks and left more than 5,000 Palestinians dead as well. Hamas has carried dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

While Hamas did not take responsibility for the attack, it praised the bombing.

“We consider it a natural response to the occupation crimes and the ongoing massacres against civilians in the Gaza Strip,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told The Associated Press.

Bassem Ezbidi, a West Bank political analyst, said it was unlikely Hamas itself was behind the attack, since it would not want to risk losing any of the international support it gained in recent days.

“If Hamas wants to target civilians it would do so by firing rockets, but not by buses because such attacks left a negative record in the minds of people. Hamas doesn’t need this now,” he said.

On the other hand, Hamas may be interested in signaling to Israel that a renewed bombing campaign is possible, particularly as thousands of Israeli ground troops massed on the Gaza border awaiting a possible invasion should cease-fire talks fail.

A tiny militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, claimed responsibility for the bus bombing but offered no evidence to back up the claim. The Damascus-based group has few followers in the West Bank and Palestinian groups often claim attacks they haven’t carried out.

The Tel Aviv bombing came after a night of more than 30 Israeli airstrikes over Gaza that hit government ministries, smuggling tunnels, a banker’s empty villa and a Hamas-linked media office.

Some 10,000 Palestinians sought shelter in 12 U.N.-run schools, after Israel dropped leaflets urging residents to vacate their homes in some areas of Gaza to avoid being hit by airstrikes, said Adnan Abu Hassna, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman.

The influx of displaced people came a day after the head of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, warned that the agency urgently needed $12 million to continue distributing food to the neediest Gazans. The agency runs schools, shelters and food programs for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Gaza.

The bus attack took place around noon on one of the coastal city’s busiest arteries, near the Tel Aviv museum, the district courthouse and across from an entrance to Israel’s national defense headquarters.

The blast was from a device placed inside the bus by a man who then got off, said Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel’s minister of internal security,

He said the explosion took place while the bus was moving. Blood splattered the sidewalk at the site of the explosion, with glass scattered around.

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