Driver Is Slain After Car Rams Into Israel Crowd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israel's shock over Sunday's double suicide bombings was compounded Monday when a car driven by a Palestinian American from Southern California rammed into a bus stop, killing one commuter and injuring 23 others before survivors shot the driver dead.

Police said that Ahmed Abdel Hamid Hamida's driver's license showed he was a resident of California, and U.S. diplomatic sources said he was from Rowland Heights. Family members in the West Bank village of Mazra al Sharkiya said Hamida, whose age they gave as 35, returned to their village in July and became a devout Muslim.

Eyewitnesses said the car appeared to deliberately speed through a red light, directly toward the bus stop.

Hamida's family members, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, insisted he was not a terrorist. Police inspectors said they are not sure.

Police said skid marks left by Hamida's rented Fiat Uno showed he tried to brake before plowing into the bus stop in northern Jerusalem on the rain-slicked main road to the West Bank town of Ramallah, a stop frequented by Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers.

Police said the commuter who was killed was Israeli, as were 15 of the injured.

"They [bystanders] thought he was a terrorist," police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen told reporters at the scene. "He ran into a group of people who were standing here. The people . . . innocently thought that it was a terrorist attack. They shot him and killed him."

The incident reflected the high state of tension in this city since a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and 24 other people, including two Americans, on a crowded commuter bus Sunday morning near the central bus station. Less than an hour later, a second suicide bomber, dressed in an Israeli army uniform, killed himself and one Israeli and injured nearly three dozen when he detonated explosives at a bus stop in the coastal town of Ashkelon.

Many Israelis are licensed to carry arms, and Israel Radio appealed to people Monday to be cautious before opening fire.

Hamida's family members in the Los Angeles area expressed shock at the news of his death and called the incident an accident.

"He was the most clean-hearted man," said Akram Hamideh, 30, a cousin. "One thing we are sure about, he never wished harm on anybody. That's why he was so special to all of us."

"He wouldn't kill somebody on purpose," said a cousin who was interviewed in her Monterey Park home and asked not to be identified. "He would never fight with anybody. I guess the car didn't stop because of the brakes."

This cousin described Hamida as a politically moderate man who supported the Mideast peace process.

"He liked [Yasser] Arafat," said another cousin, who also asked not to be identified. "I don't think he believed in [the militant Islamic group] Hamas."

Hamida had lived in the United States for about 20 years and was a U.S. citizen, his cousins said. Family members said he was single and ran a grocery store in East Los Angeles before he left to visit two sisters in Mazra al Sharkiya last year.

Hamida was one of five children. His mother, a brother and a sister also live in the Los Angeles area.

Family members said the dead man's mother, who lives in Rowland Heights, was stricken by the news of her son's death. "She's screaming; she's crying," said one of the cousins.

A State Department spokesman in Washington said that U.S. officials had not confirmed that Hamida was a U.S. citizen but were operating on the assumption that he was.

Meanwhile on Monday, Israelis mourned their dead, lighting memorial candles to those slain Sunday, observing a minute of silence in schools and streaming by the thousands to Har Herzl national cemetery for the funerals of nine soldiers and three civilians.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres told a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that Palestinian Authority President Arafat must disarm Hamas, which claimed responsibility for Sunday's attacks.

"The Palestinian Authority should decide between disarming the terrorists and compromising its authority," Peres said as some right-wing lawmakers heckled him.

Meeting with Israeli reporters, Peres said that if another attack occurs, Israel may push back its scheduled March 26 withdrawal of troops from the West Bank city of Hebron. He said the bomber in Sunday's attack in Jerusalem came from Hebron, the only Palestinian city in the West Bank still under Israeli control.

U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk said the Clinton administration backs Peres' demand that Arafat do more to stop terrorist attacks.

Arafat "prefers to co-opt rather than to crack down," Indyk said. "He has been engaged in continuous negotiations with Hamas in an effort to try to co-opt them. That process of co-opting has manifestly failed."

Peres has more at stake than ever in pressuring Arafat to get tough with Islamic militants.

An opinion poll conducted immediately following Sunday's bombing by the Dahaf Institute, a Tel Aviv research organization, showed a sharp drop in public support for Peres, who is running against Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister in the May 29 national elections. Before the bombing, most polls showed Peres leading Netanyahu by 11 to 22 points. The Dahaf poll showed the gap had narrowed to three points.

Fighting for his political life, Peres promised Monday that the closure he imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip after Sunday's attacks will stay in place "as long as there is a security need for it."

"We won't stop the peace process, but we'll hit terrorism," Peres said. "We won't rest until all the mad and violent people are punished. I cannot promise that there will be no more victims. But I am sure that we'll bring about the collapse of this murderous organization."

In front-page commentaries Monday, Israel's largest daily newspapers criticized Peres for having lifted an 11-day closure of the territories just two days before Sunday's attacks. The newspapers accused Peres of having sacrificed security concerns for the political concern of easing the financial damage closure causes for Palestinians.

Palestinian officials also complained about Israel's response to the bombings.

"We must speak about the atmosphere that Israel has created since the beginning of the peace process," said Marwan Kanafani, an elected member of the Palestinian self-governing council.

Kanafani said repeated closures of the territories, coupled with what he said is Israel's refusal to dismantle Jewish settlements and other measures, have soured the atmosphere.

Times staff writers Duke Helfand in Los Angeles and Jim Mann in Washington contributed to this report.

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