Twenty people were killed and at least 10 were injured this morning in the second terrorist attack on the No. 18 bus in the heart of the nation's capital in a week, Jerusalem Police Commander Arieh Amit said.
The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility, according to Israel Radio.
The No. 18 was traveling down Jaffa Road, through the heart of Jerusalem's commercial district, when a massive explosion turned it into twisted wreckage at 6:25 a.m., police reported. Rescue workers said they pulled 10 bodies from the charred bus within minutes but thought there were more to be found.
"The bus is usually full" at that hour, police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen said at the scene.
But Amit, also at the scene, said he believed that the number of casualties might be limited by the fact that rush hour was not yet in full swing when the bomb exploded.
Rushing to the scene from his nearby home after he heard the explosion, U.S. Consul General Edward Abington Jr. called the bombing "a devastating blow" to the peace process. He took a call from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at the scene.
"Mr. Chairman, I don't know what to say," Abington told Arafat. "But you'd better prepare yourself for the worst. I don't know what will happen."
According to an advisor, Arafat reacted angrily to the attack, calling it a disaster.
"When I woke up Arafat and told him about the bombing, he was silent for a few seconds and then said angrily: 'This is a disaster, a disaster,' " Ahmed Tibi said.
On Feb. 25, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated a large bomb on the No. 18 bus as it neared the city's central bus station on Jaffa Road, about a mile from this morning's explosion. That bombing killed 24 people and the bomber, and a 25th passenger died from injuries from the blast five days later. Within an hour of the Jerusalem bus bombing last Sunday, another suicide bomber detonated explosives at a bus stop in the coastal town of Ashkelon, killing himself and one other person. Hamas later claimed responsibility for those bombings.
On Thursday, Hamas issued a leaflet offering a cease-fire to the Israelis if Israel stopped pursuing Hamas activists. The leaflet warned that Hamas would resume its attacks March 8 if the offer was rejected. Israeli officials immediately rejected the offer, saying they deal only with the elected Palestinian Authority and Arafat, its head.
This morning, the wail of ambulances once again shattered the early morning quiet of Jerusalem's streets. The city was just awakening to a new workweek, after the Jewish Sabbath, when the bombing occurred. Families of last week's bombing victims were completing the Jewish week of mourning, or shiva.
Also shattered was the sense of security provided to Israelis by the government's having banned Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from traveling inside Israel. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered a full closure--keeping about 50,000 workers from jobs inside Israel--after the twin bombings. Peres also ordered an increase in security measures, suspended peace talks with the Palestinian Authority and said that Israel might delay its withdrawal of troops from the West Bank town of Hebron, the last town in the West Bank still controlled by Israel.
"If this is a pattern, the government will stop it," said government spokesman Uri Dromi, speaking at the scene of today's attack. "We hope to do it with the Palestinian Authority, but if they can't or don't want to, then we're going to do it by ourselves. If those among the Palestinians who want to shatter the peace process are allowed to go on like this, then the peace process is in danger."
"The message has to be unambiguous," Housing Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer said in a telephone interview with Israel Television. "If you [the Palestinian Authority] don't do the work, we will do it. This is not a joke anymore. We are talking about our right to live in our country. . . . We have to suspend the talks and to explain to the Palestinians: If you in your areas won't succeed to do what has to be done, we shall do it. We're talking about guarding our lives. Our lives will not be jeopardized. We won't let everyone come in with a charge and blow us up."
Israeli President Ezer Weizman also called for a halt to the peace process, as he has done after previous bombings.
"I recommend to my friends in the government to stop for a minute, stop and think. It cannot go on like this," Weizman told Israel Radio. "Halt every contact there is now."
Ninety minutes after today's explosion, Peres arrived on the scene as a heavy rain began to fall. Under tight security, he toured the grim site as the crowd booed. He left without addressing it.
Hundreds of police pushed onlookers back from the bus, where police investigators, rescue workers and ultra-Orthodox funeral workers picked through the shattered glass.
A shocked, sobbing crowd gathered quickly at the scene. While some wept and others hugged each other, dozens of people began to chant: "Peres resign, we don't want you anymore" and "Death to the Arabs." Some chanted the name of Yigal Amir, the right-wing Jewish law student who shot Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to death on Nov. 4. Amir, whose trial was set to resume today in a Tel Aviv courtroom, has said he killed the prime minister to halt peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
"Those calls don't help anymore," said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, himself a parliamentary candidate from the opposition Likud Party, as he arrived at the scene. "I know our emotions are very high now, but it is a time to be restrained. This was a very big explosion. There are a lot of dead and wounded. I went to sleep last night in fear."
Public opinion polls published Friday, before the Sabbath began, showed a dramatic drop in support for the ruling Labor Party in the wake of last week's bombings. Israelis are scheduled to elect a new prime minister and parliament May 29.
Both Peres and the Labor Party he heads were enjoying a comfortable lead in the polls before this latest rash of bombings. But Friday's polls showed Peres in a dead heat with his chief rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The same polls showed that Likud would capture more seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, than Labor if the elections were held immediately.