- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

JERUSALEM — A Palestinian suicide bomber blew apart a Jerusalem bus yesterday morning, killing himself and eight passengers on the eve of a United Nations hearing on the West Bank barrier constructed by Israel to foil such attacks.

The attack, which injured about 60 others, added new urgency to the claim of Israeli leaders that a matrix of fences, walls, barbed wire and trenches is needed to prevent terrorists from entering from the West Bank.

The strike diverted attention for the moment from Palestinian arguments that the Israeli barrier is an illegal land grab and is causing a humanitarian disaster.

“The terrible and painful bombing in Jerusalem is the answer to the world, which is convening in The Hague to pass judgment on the state of Israel,” Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said.

“It’s proved once again that the fence is situated to protect our lives.”

The U.N. International Court of Justice at The Hague today will begin listening to oral arguments on the legal implications of the barrier. Rather than appear, Israel has decided simply to submit a written brief challenging the jurisdiction of the court.

The explosion in Jerusalem went off about 8:30 a.m. on a No. 14 bus packed with commuters on their way to work and school at the start of the Israeli week.

The blast, near central Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park, sprayed glass into a gas station across the street. Two of those killed were high school students.

“I was pumping gas at the station when I saw the bus explode. It felt like the station was going to explode,” said Ra’ed Shweiki, 23, a resident of East Jerusalem who was injured.

“Body parts, arms and legs fell in my direction, and I saw someone escaping and he told me to run away.”

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, claimed responsibility for the bombing. A statement described the attack as a protest against the barrier and retaliation for the killing of 15 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.

The bomber was identified as Muhammad Zool, 23, father of one, from a village near Bethlehem, according to the Web site of the newspaper Ha’aretz. Zool evaded discovery by two security guards who passed through the bus only minutes before the explosion.

Mr. Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia both denounced the attack, saying it gave Israel an excuse to continue with construction of the barrier. The Palestinian legal adviser to the delegation at The Hague said he didn’t expect the bombing would have an impact on the 15-judge panel.

“This isn’t a question of public sympathy. It’s a question of an application of law,” Michael Tarazi said. “Of course this is not helpful, but neither are the deaths of 34 Palestinians since the beginning of February.”

In a separate development, Israel began dismantling a 4-mile section of the security barrier that wrapped around the eastern edge of the Palestinian village Baka a-Sharqiya.

Denying suggestions that the move was timed to coincide with the start of the proceedings today, Israel said the portion of the barrier had become superfluous after the army closed off the village from the west with a wall.

Palestinians say the 480-mile barrier — one-third of which is completed — has been routed through their land and is causing economic hardship by isolating cities and villages. Israel calls the barrier a defensive measure and a last resort after years of suicide bombings.

In December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the barrier and requesting the International Court of Justice to issue a ruling on the legal implications. The nonbinding ruling could take anywhere from one to six months.

Thousands of supporters from both sides in the dispute traveled to The Hague to demonstrate. Palestinians also scheduled protests today throughout the West Bank.

The barrier cordons off Jerusalem to the north with a fence, while a wall separates the city from an Arab suburb to the east. The southern perimeter has yet to be closed.

Israel’s army responded to the bus attack by closing access in and out of Bethlehem but was expected to refrain from stronger retaliation because of the legal proceedings, Ha’aretz reported.

The explosion propelled parts of the bus over nearby treetops and shattered the front window entirely. The bus company canceled a ceremony scheduled for yesterday morning to inaugurate a fleet of new buses outfitted with equipment to help drivers detect bombers.

Jerusalem City Council member Nir Barkat, on the scene, said he had canceled plans at the last minute to travel to the hearing at The Hague to demonstrate on Israel’s behalf.

“I saw the explosion in front of my eyes, stopped my car and ran to the bus to rescue the injured. It was a simply grotesque scene,” he said.

“I would have liked for the entire world to see inside the bus. It would reorder their priorities: quality of life, or the lives of innocents?”

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