In a deadly attack with possibly decisive political repercussions, an Israeli mother and her three children burned to death Sunday when Arab youths hurled five gasoline bombs at a passenger bus near the West Bank town of Jericho and flames engulfed the vehicle, military officials said.
At least five other passengers were injured and taken by helicopter and ambulance to hospitals in Jerusalem, about 20 miles away. One was reported in serious condition. It was the highest one-day toll of Jewish victims since the Arab revolt against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began last December.
The ambush took place at 8:15 p.m. on the northern outskirts of Jericho as the regularly scheduled bus traveled from Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, to Jerusalem. Youths had placed rocks on the road to slow the bus, military sources said, and then threw the bombs.
The bus caught fire, proceeded a few dozen yards and then stopped as panicky passengers tried to escape. A soldier tried and failed to rescue the woman and children.
A military source called the ambush "well-planned." Other such ambushes had been attempted at the same spot, he added, warning it might foreshadow an upsurge of violence in the occupied lands. By early today, soldiers had arrested several suspects, army spokesmen said.
The deaths and injuries coincided with the close of Israel's general election campaign. Israeli voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide which of the leading parties, Likud, headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, or Labor, led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, can more quickly bring peace to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Observers immediately speculated that the bus attack would benefit the campaign of Shamir, who has taken a harder line toward relations with Arabs.
A soldier who was a passenger on the bus told Israel Radio that he had urged the woman who died on the bus to flee. But thinking that the bus was under continuing attack, she refused to get out, saying she had to protect her children.
"I heard the sounds of a woman," he recalled. "I approached her, and grabbed her with one hand. I said, 'Come out with me.' She absolutely refused," said Sgt. Ron Leivand, 21.
"She said, 'But I have a baby, what about the baby!' After a few seconds, I realized that if I remained one more second. . . ." He paused. "I escaped with my last bit of energy."
Israeli authorities declined to release the names or ages of the victims.
Israel Radio, quoting army Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, said an army sweep after the attack had captured the young firebombers. It offered no details. During the manhunt, Israel's Defense Forces shut off roads leading into Jericho and put it under curfew.
In a telephone interview, one Arab resident of Jericho said he was ordered into his home and later heard soldiers going from door to door in his neighborhood.
Rabin, Shomron Visit Site
Both Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shomron visited the site of the attack.
The Israeli army had already beefed up its forces in the West Bank and Gaza in anticipation of Tuesday's vote. Palestinian leaders of the uprising have called for a general strike both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Palestinian rebels occasionally use firebombs, along with the more commonplace rocks, as weapons against both Israeli soldiers and civilians traveling on roads in the areas. Since the uprising began, nearly 300 Arabs have been killed by Israeli soldiers. Seven Israelis have died.
Earlier Sunday, Israeli soldiers shot to death a 17-year-old Palestinian in the town of Beit Sahur near Bethlehem. The youth was shot after an anti-Israeli demonstration broke out after Sunday religious services in the town.
Key Election Issues
Both the fate of the occupied territories and the best means of putting an end to the uprising have been key issues in the election campaign.
Shamir has taken a hard-line stance on the uprising and talks with Arab adversaries, while Peres is considered more amenable to talking peace with Palestinians.
Peres responded to Sunday's killings even before the army had officially confirmed the deaths. "The whole nation is united in the feeling of rage and pain. The army will get the murderers wherever they are. We will fight terrorism to the bitter end," he said.
Shamir said, "The murderous and criminal act is testimony to the trend toward more extremism on the part of the aggressors, whose one desire is to kill and burn as many Jews as possible."
In a closing television campaign talk taped before the bus firebombing and aired Sunday night, Shamir had warned, "We will not allow the Arabs to dare harm Jews in their homeland."
Could Aid Shamir Campaign
Some political observers suggested that the vote of outraged Israelis will bolster Shamir's campaign. "This can lead to more votes for Likud. Naturally, people are going to get angry and they will turn to people who call for a strong hand and not those who call for compromise," said one.
Another observer speculated that because the woman was reported to have been observant of Jewish religious practices, as signified by the scarf she wore on her head, members of religious communities may turn out in force for Likud or more extreme, anti-Arab parties that are also running.
The Settlers Committee for Safe Travel, representing Israelis who live on the West Bank, called for "expulsion of anyone who dares to lift a hand" against Israeli civilians or soldiers.
Expressions of Rage
Previous Jewish deaths during the intifada, as the uprising is known in Arabic, have set off expressions of rage in Israel. Last April, when a Jewish girl was reportedly killed by stones thrown by Arabs, her funeral turned into a political rally. Shamir addressed the mourners and cried, "The blood of the whole nation is boiling!"
It later turned out that an Israeli security guard had fired a rifle and mistakenly shot the girl.
Other murders of Jews by Arabs, even if a political motive is not clearly determined, often become fuel for the debate over how to resolve the violent conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors and residents.