- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

TEL AVIV — A Palestinian blew himself up in the middle of a bus crowded with ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem last night, killing at least 18 and injuring more than 100 in an attack that threatens to sink a U.S. initiative to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The bombing, which claimed several children, marks the worst spasm of violence since Palestinian militants declared a cease-fire seven weeks ago and the Israeli army began pullbacks in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The attack, which follows two bombings last week, prompted Israel to delay indefinitely plans for a withdrawal from four West Bank cities, Israeli officials said.

“This proves that the Palestinian Authority must once and for all dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in its territory, which they have utterly failed to do,” said David Baker, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “The results of which we see tonight in Jerusalem.”

Islamic Jihad took responsibility, saying the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a leading activist last week in Hebron at the end of an hours-long standoff with the Israeli army. Hamas, a rival Palestinian militant group, also took responsibility, justifying the bombing as a response to an offensive by the army.

“We are still committed to the hudna,” said Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, referring to the cease-fire. But, he added, “we will react to each action by the Israelis.” He, however, denied knowledge of who was behind the attack.

But, in Hebron, Hamas distributed fliers saying the bombing had been carried out by Raed Abdel Hamed Mesk. Israeli television said Mesk, 29, was an Islamic teacher and the father of two.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was in discussions with Islamic Jihad officials yesterday to extend the cease-fire, said early today that he was breaking all contacts with Islamic Jihad and Hamas in response to the attacks, a senior Palestinian official said.

The official, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Abbas planned unspecified measures against the groups for “harming the Palestinian national interests” with their activities. He denounced the bus bombing as a “terrible act” and promised to track down those responsible.

The White House denounced the bombing, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell telephoned Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to express condolences.

“We condemn this vicious act of terrorism,” National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said. “We call on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle terrorism,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

The explosion occurred around 9 p.m., ripping through a bus packed with families traveling from the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof. The crowded tandem bus — which has two passenger sections — exploded as it drove along a main thoroughfare in Jerusalem and another bus pulled in front of it, witnesses told AP.

Israeli television’s Channel Two showed rescue workers carrying dazed children with charred skin away from the wreckage. The explosion gutted the bus and ripped away the ceiling. The bomb was so powerful that passengers riding in the other bus also were injured.

Israeli radio carried news announcements of infants injured in the blast who had been brought to the hospital without any family members.

“We said during the last two months, even during the hudna, that there are organizations that aren’t happy with this process and would try to carry out attacks,” said Israeli Police Chief Shlomo Aharonishki. “This attack is an escalation in terms of its power.”

At the same time, the police chief said, he didn’t expect Israeli security officials to call for a response that would add momentum to the surge in violence.

“There still is a process that both us and people on the other side are trying to advance,” he said.

The Jerusalem bombing comes a week after two suicide attacks in the West Bank settlement and an Israeli suburb in the central portion of the country that killed two Israelis. Hamas and a militant group associated with Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement took responsibility for the attacks. The groups said the bombings were in retaliation for an Israeli army offensive.

Late last week, Israel sent commandos to arrest Muhammad Sidr, identified as the leading Islamic Jihad militant in Hebron. The killing of Sidr after an hours-long standoff prompted vows of revenge from the group.

Despite the suicide bombings and the threats, Israel agreed in principle to turn over security authority in four West Bank towns — Ramallah, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya and Jericho — to the Palestinian Authority. Talks between security officials on an Israeli pullout in Qalqiliya and Jericho were scheduled to be held earlier yesterday.

“This is a direct act of defiance leveled at [Mr. Abbas]. It is terribly important to see how he handles himself,” said Uzi Arad, director of terrorism studies at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlyia.

“He either has to do what he committed to do under the road map, or he will prove he is useless. I expect the American administration and the Israeli government to be unequivocally insistent that the commitments the Palestinians were supposed to fulfill under the road map immediately be applied,” he said, referring to the U.S. peace initiative.

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