- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet pledged to fight terror “in any way possible” at an emergency meeting called yesterday after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon postponed a visit to Washington in the face of a wave of suicide attacks.

The developments left in tatters the prospects for an international “road map” to Middle East peace, which was to have been the centerpiece of Mr. Sharon’s meeting with President Bush at the White House tomorrow.

A Hamas suicide attacker disguised as an observant Jew with a prayer shawl and skullcap killed seven Israeli bus passengers in Jerusalem yesterday. The bombing also wounded 20 passengers. It was one of four Palestinian attacks within 11 hours — three suicide bombings and a shooting — that left nine Israeli civilians and five Palestinian assailants dead.

The attacks were timed to coincide with the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since 2000, held late Saturday between Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

At a four-hour Cabinet meeting yesterday, several ministers renewed calls for the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but Mr. Sharon said Israel was better off not having the Palestinian leader tour world capitals. For more than a year, Mr. Arafat has been confined to the West Bank town of Ramallah by Israel.

Israel “will continue to fight terror everywhere, at any time and in any way possible,” the Cabinet said in a statement.

In a routine response, the Israeli military sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a step that meant little because Palestinians already are subject to stringent travel bans.

A senior government official said that foreign diplomats who declare their intention to meet Mr. Arafat will not be received by Israeli officials, an attempt to further isolate the Palestinian leader.

Israel held Mr. Arafat responsible for the latest attacks, charging that he continues to encourage militants. The Abbas government condemned the bombings and said it was serious about ending violence.

Israel demands tough measures against the violent groups ahead of any other peace moves, though the peace plan — a three-stage prescription for ending violence and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005 — calls for parallel steps. Mr. Sharon was to have discussed his reservations with Mr. Bush this week.

Yesterday, the Bush administration condemned the bus attack.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell issued a statement calling on the Palestinians “to begin to take immediate and decisive action to eradicate the infrastructure of terrorism and violence that has wrought such tragic bloodshed for both Palestinians and Israelis and has undermined Palestinian aspirations.”

Israel’s vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert, accused the international community, particularly the European Union, of undercutting Mr. Abbas by refusing to join Israel and the United States in a boycott of Mr. Arafat.

“Many European governments are sending signals that strengthen Yasser Arafat,” Mr. Olmert told Israel TV’s Channel 1, referring to continued meetings between EU officials and the Palestinian leader.

“As a result, [the Abbas government] is a paralyzed government … and we can’t even put it to the test of whether it wants to fight terror or not,” Mr. Olmert said.

Yesterday’s bus bombing, the 93rd in 32 months of fighting, went off just before 6 a.m. at a busy intersection on the outskirts of Jerusalem, at the start of morning rush hour on what is a regular workday in Israel.

The attacker, a 19-year-old from the West Bank city of Hebron, was disguised in a skullcap and white prayer shawl. Just seconds after boarding the two-sectioned bus, he detonated nail-studded explosives strapped to his body. The gush of metal and fire tore through the leg of the driver, who lost control of the vehicle.

The bodies of the dead remained sitting upright in their seats and included a woman with short, dark hair whose head slumped back and whose legs were still crossed. One man’s body, heaved by the blast, leaned from a broken window.

The seven dead included four new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The wounded passengers included six soldiers returning to their bases after weekend leave.

Hamas did not issue a formal claim of responsibility, but Bassem Jamil Tarkrouri, a Hamas activist, was identified by relatives as the assailant. Hamas has carried out dozens of bombings in recent years to try to derail peace efforts.

About half an hour after the bus attack, a second attacker blew himself up on the city’s outskirts, apparently after he failed to penetrate roadblocks set up in the wake of the first attack. No one else was hurt.

In a suicide bombing Saturday evening, just before the Sharon-Abbas summit, a Hamas assailant killed an Israeli couple in a downtown square in Hebron.

In other developments yesterday, 15 Palestinians wanted by Israel left Mr. Arafat’s Ramallah compound in line with an Israeli demand that the Palestinian leader stop giving them refuge, according to Palestinian officials.

In the Gaza Strip, two Palestinian teens were killed by Israeli army fire, doctors said. In the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian militiamen dragged a suspected informer into a main square and killed him with several shots to the head, witnesses said.

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