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Suicide Bombing Kills 19 in Israel : Terrorism: More than 60 are injured by successive blasts in attack by two men at bus stop crowded with soldiers. Militant Islamic group claims responsibility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two suicide bombers, believed to be members of a militant Islamic group, detonated powerful explosives Sunday near a bus stop crowded with Israeli soldiers returning from weekend furloughs, killing 19 people and wounding more than 60.

The bombs exploded as the young soldiers gathered for roll call and transport back to their bases in northern Israel and the occupied West Bank, flattening a snack bar and throwing dozens of troopers into the air and across the road.

“The snack bar was blown apart by the first explosion,” said Oleg Feinberg, who had been waiting for a bus at the busy Beit Lid junction near the coastal town of Netanya about 20 miles north of Tel Aviv. “Soldiers ran to help the wounded, and then in another two minutes there was a second explosion, even bigger. These bombs were meant to kill and injure as many people as possible.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin denounced the attack, the latest in a series of suicide bombings by Muslim radicals in the heart of Israel, as a murderous atrocity with “the dual goal of killing Israelis and halting the peace process.”

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The leader of Islamic Jihad, which opposes the 1993 agreement on Palestinian self-rule as a sellout by the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in Damascus, Syria, that two of his members had carried out the attack. Fathi Shukaki said the bombing was in retaliation for the killing earlier this month of three Palestinian policemen by Israeli soldiers and the November assassination of a leading Islamic Jihad activist in the Gaza Strip.

“We confirm our ability to penetrate all the enemy’s false security lines and reach the heart of the enemy,” said Shukaki, Islamic Jihad’s secretary general. “We say to the enemy that even its nuclear weapons will not help against the attacks of our moujahedeen (holy fighters).”

The carnage at Beit Lid was the worst since another suicide bomber blew up a bus full of commuters in downtown Tel Aviv in October, killing 23 people. Over the past year, suicide bombers from radical Islamic groups have also struck in Jerusalem and the central Israeli towns of Afula and Hadera.

In response to Sunday’s attack, the Israeli Cabinet ordered the army to seal the Palestinian territories, both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in order to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel.

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The Cabinet, meeting late into the evening, also decided to freeze the planned release of Palestinian prisoners and to suspend the use of special transit corridors for Palestinians traveling between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

But the Cabinet resolved to continue negotiations with the PLO over the extension of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, the pullback of Israeli forces in the region and the holding of Palestinian elections.

President Ezer Weizman, in an unusual challenge to Rabin, had publicly demanded that the talks be suspended in an effort to force PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to crack down on the Islamic groups opposed to the peace agreement with Israel.

“I believe we should now suspend the talks--not stop them, but suspend them and rethink everything,” Weizman said after visiting wounded soldiers. “We should tell (Arafat), ‘Make a greater effort (to halt the terrorism).’ If he cannot, we should reassess things. . . .

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“If Arafat has no influence over the Palestinian people, then maybe he is the wrong man (to deal with). This is the battle over peace. In battle, when you enter a minefield, you stop--you don’t go ahead.”

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres replied that the negotiations must continue if Israel is to achieve peace with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors.

Mounting violence, however, has already drained away much popular support for negotiations with both the PLO and Syria.

“We can’t continue with the peace process and every month go and bury citizens of Israel,” Energy Minister Gonen Segev said.

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Not since the Palestinian bombings and kidnapings of the 1970s, in fact, have Israelis suffered so greatly within the borders of the Jewish state.

In clear anguish after visiting the scene, Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur said in a radio interview: “What do we do? Where do we go? Where is all this leading? It’s not easy to give answers. The anger drives you mad.”

Still pale with shock, witnesses at Beit Lid described horrific scenes of bodies blown apart by the explosions and cut to shreds by the debris-become-shrapnel.

Moshe Freiberg, a 19-year-old soldier, sobbed uncontrollably as he recalled how “people flew in the air” and “fell around us, and on us, in pieces.”

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Black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jews from a religious medical team later searched the area inch by inch to collect the severed limbs and other tissue for burial as required by Jewish law.

“We found a head on a roof and limbs on treetops,” said Moshe Jakobowitz, 39, one of the rescue workers. “I can’t tell you how I feel. When you have to do this work, you just do it. Later, at home, I can’t forget these memories. I’ve been through this before.”

For Israelis, the scene of devastation was compounded by television footage of piles of soldiers’ duffel bags and uniforms lying in pools of blood.

Rabin, accompanied by nervous bodyguards, was jeered by hundreds of Israelis as he inspected the scene of the bombing.

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“Rabin the traitor!” the crowd chanted. “You’ve got blood on your hands!” Others demanded, “How much longer can this go on?”

Arafat telephoned Rabin to denounce the attack as the work of “the enemies of peace” and to express his sympathy.

“The aim of these attacks is to kill the peace process,” Arafat said, “and it is the responsibility of all of us to prevent enemies of peace from reaching their goals.”

In Washington, President Clinton also denounced the attack. “I condemn in the strongest possible terms this horrendous act of terrorist violence,” Clinton said in a statement issued by the White House.

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The brunt of the explosions was taken by a single army company, part of a special unit that guards mustering points and bus stops used by troops going on and returning from leave.

Survivors said they believe that the first bomb was set off by a man wearing an army uniform who had doubled over outside the snack bar as if about to vomit. When soldiers rushed to see what happened, the second bomb exploded. Israeli authorities were still uncertain late Sunday, however, whether one or two people were involved.

The bombers identified in an Islamic Jihad statement were two Gazans--Anwar Mohammed Sakr, 25, a carpenter and former political prisoner, and Salah Abdel Hamid Shaker, 27, who had also been arrested by Israeli security police in the past.


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