- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

HAIFA, Israel A blast tore through a Haifa municipal bus filled with university and high school students, killing at least 16 and ending one of the longest breaks from suicide bombings since a Palestinian uprising began 2 years ago.
Fifty-five were reported injured.
The explosion occurred around 2:15 p.m. yesterday as municipal bus No. 37 paused on a verdant mountaintop street in Israel's third-largest city to let off and take on passengers, many of them teenagers returning home from school.
The blast blew off the roof of the bus and shattered windows of nearby apartment buildings.
The attack follows a series of Israeli incursions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank during the past month that have killed more than 80 Palestinians.
Police identified the bomber as Mahmoud Hamdan Kawasme, 20, of the West Bank city of Hebron, and said he was carrying a letter praising the September 11 attacks on the United States. It was not known whether he was affiliated with a militant group.
Coming nearly a week after the beginning of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's second term, the attack is the first test of the new hard-line government's mettle.
Israel's security Cabinet, in a first response to the attack, ordered the closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip until further notice, banning all Palestinians from entering the country, the military said.
Later, about 50 Israeli tanks accompanied by helicopter gunships moved deep into the Jabaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City. Two Palestinians, a 60-year-old night watchman and a 25-year-old gunman, were killed and 11 persons were wounded in exchanges of fire, hospital officials said.
Israeli helicopters also fired three missiles at a target. Details were not provided.
In Jerusalem, Mr. Sharon convened a meeting of the new ministers to his inner security Cabinet.
"We are preparing for various violent biological and chemical scenarios," said Interior Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, referring to a likely missile strike in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. "But it's still the daily threat of Palestinian terrorism that creates dozens of warnings per week."
Israeli officials said the military would retaliate for the attack.
The Palestinian Authority said the bombing undermines efforts to move ahead with the government reforms demanded by the United States and by European governments.
"We condemn all attacks against civilians including today's attack in Haifa," Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a statement.
The most recent terrorist attack inside Israel, before this one, occurred exactly two months ago in Tel Aviv, a double bombing near the city's central bus station that killed 23 persons.
Just minutes before the bombing yesterday, 17-year-old Chen Aflalo hopped off a bus at the same stop.
It was a sunny springlike day, and he had decided to treat himself to lunch.
Through the restaurant window, Chen watched the No. 37 bus slow down at the stop.
A group of passengers boarded the vehicle, as did a security guard, posted on municipal bus routes to prevent attacks. The guard was too late.
The boom let up a dark cloud of smoke and dust, shaking the foundation of nearby buildings and shattering widows. Afterward, flames engulfed the bus.
Bystanders tried to douse the flames with water bottles. Others jumped into the inferno to pull out the passengers.
"Young kids my age were lying on the ground crying out, 'Mom, it hurts,'" Chen said. "I saw elderly women whose clothes had been torn and bloody, the poor souls."
Holding a soccer ball in one hand and twisting a lock of hair with the other, Gal Navon, 14, stared blankly into the charred remains of the bus.
"I could sense that there was going to be an attack in the Haifa area. I felt it," he said. "There hasn't been an attack in a long time, and it's simply a routine that once in a while it happens."

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