- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

JERUSALEM — A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded Jerusalem municipal bus yesterday, killing 10 persons on a day when celebratory gunfire throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip marked the release of 400 Palestinian militants in one of Israel’s most ambitious prisoner exchanges ever.

About 45 others were injured in the morning rush-hour explosion, which flung body parts into stores and shattered glass of nearby apartment buildings.

The bus bombing occurred just a few blocks from the official residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was at his private home in southern Israel at the time.

“There was a big boom. And then there was a silence like you can’t image. Then came the screams,” said Stephan Ben Shoshan, 30, a volunteer policeman and the owner of a chocolates shop just a few feet from where the bus came to rest.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The bomber was identified as Ali Munir Jarah, a Palestinian policeman from Bethlehem.

Israeli news reports quoted a statement from Palestinian militants claiming the attack was retaliation for an Israeli raid in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday in which nine Palestinians were killed.

The bombing occurred at the tail end of a visit by U.S. envoy John Wolf, who had returned to Israel after several months in an effort to revive the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

The bombing also occurred as Israel completed an intricate prisoner exchange in which an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers were returned from Lebanon in exchange for 36 members of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and 400 Palestinians.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat condemned the bombing. “This brutal cycle of violence can only be stopped by significant progress in the peace negotiations,” he said.

Israel responded by accusing Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia — known also as Abu Ala — of turning a blind eye toward terrorism.

“Unfortunately, it looks like Abu Ala, like Abu Mazen and Arafat, has not taken the strategic decision to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist organizations,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in a statement.

“We believe that the only way to move forward is for both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, to implement their commitments under the road map. The Palestinians must put an end to terror and violence. The sooner, the better.”

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called Mr. Shalom to express U.S. condolences and discuss stalled peace talks in the region.

“I implore the Palestinian leaders, and especially Prime Minister Abu Ala, to do everything in their power to ostracize these terrorists and go after them. Because as long as it continues, the hopes of both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, for peace will constantly be dashed,” Mr. Powell later told reporters.

It was the first bombing in Jerusalem since seven persons were killed Sept. 9 in the Cafe Hillel attack.

Yesterday’s bomb left the No. 19 bus a charred skeleton in the middle of Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. The force of the explosion blew out the roof of the rear of the vehicle. The bus driver survived the explosion.

At the time of the bombing, a team of Israeli forensic specialists in Germany was inspecting the remains of three Israeli soldiers — the final stage in a swap that took three years to negotiate with Hezbollah through German officials.

Israel went ahead with the multifaceted exchange in spite of the attack, handing over 30 Lebanese and other Arab prisoners at a German air force base and transferring the remains of 50 others at the border with Lebanon.

“Israel, when it commits itself to an agreement, it carries it out,” said Jonathan Peled, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

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