Firing from the air and sea, Israel unleashed a barrage of missiles on the Gaza Strip on Monday in swift retaliation for an attack on a school bus that killed two Jewish settlers and wounded nine others, including three young siblings who lost limbs.
Israeli combat helicopters and warships targeted the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah political movement, his bodyguard unit, radio and television transmitting towers, and several police and militia posts, sending panicked residents running into the streets and plunging much of Gaza City into darkness. Rockets slammed into the city center and into police targets in several refugee camps. One Palestinian security agent was reported killed and dozens of other people wounded, most suffering minor injuries.
The assault--the fiercest yet by Israel in nearly eight weeks of deadly conflict--came in response to what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under increasing pressure to get tough, branded a “barbaric” terrorist attack: the bombing earlier Monday of an armored bus taking Jewish settler children and their teachers to school.
Arafat’s government was unusually quick to deny responsibility for the blast. But Israeli authorities pinned the blame directly on Fatah militants loyal to Arafat and Palestinian security forces who have taken a growing role in anti-Israel violence. After nightfall, Israel struck back.
A prime target in the air raids appeared to be the headquarters of Col. Mohammed Dahlan, head of security in Gaza and accused by some Israelis of complicity in a string of terrorist bombings. One of his security force’s buildings was hit at least 12 times from three directions, witnesses said.
“This is a continuation of the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people,” Dahlan told reporters late Monday. He spoke in a Gaza City building and forbade the reporters from broadcasting news of his appearance until after he had departed, flanked by bodyguards. “There are huge losses here tonight. This shelling will not bring peace to the two peoples.”
Arafat, who was in Gaza at the time of the rocketing, “is well and in a safe place,” Dahlan said.
Barak has come under increasing pressure from many Israelis to hit the Palestinians harder as a way to quell the violence, which has claimed more than 230 lives, about 90% of them Palestinian. For many of these Israelis, the bus bombing was the last straw. Hundreds rallied Monday night outside Barak’s Jerusalem home, demanding new elections to dump the prime minister and burning posters of Arafat under the heading “Murderer.”
In the past, Arafat has blamed terrorist attacks on extremists out of his control, an explanation that Israeli governments have accepted. Now, however, Israeli officials say Arafat’s recent decision to release men convicted in terrorist acts shifts the responsibility back to the Palestinian Authority president.
In Monday’s bus attack, a shrapnel-spewing 120-millimeter mortar was detonated by remote control alongside an Israeli-controlled road heavily traveled by Jewish settlers who live inside the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers reported seeing what they said were three Palestinians fleeing after the explosion.
Neither the armored panels nor the bulletproof glass that reinforced the bus could completely protect the children and teachers of the Kfar Darom settlement, who were making their morning trip to a nearby elementary school.
The force of the blast killed two teachers and wounded nine other passengers, including five children, three of them critically. The three were siblings, ranging in age from 7 to 12, who had been sitting together.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Yaniv Peretz, the first Israeli army medic to arrive on the scene. Shrapnel tore 5-inch holes through the bus’ steel frame.
Peretz found the two teachers dead near the front of the bus and wounded children and adults screaming in pain and panic. “I found a mother who had lost a leg who was crying for her child. I found the child, who was also wounded, and put him together with the mother to calm her,” Peretz said. He tended the wounded until ambulances from the settlements arrived.
The oldest of the injured siblings, 12-year-old Tehila Cohen, lost both legs. Officials later brought Tehila together with her injured brother and sister, Israel and Orit, in the intensive-care unit so that they could comfort one another. Orit had a leg reattached during surgery, according to a doctor at Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital.
The Palestinians’ goal, Orit later told Israeli television “is to kill us and to make us fear going to school. Now I’m afraid to go to school.”
Meir Daifani, whose daughter Matanya was wounded on the bus, said: “Our children are the brave who guard the borders of our country. Our leaders are the cowards who abandon the land.”
Within hours of the attack, the army had uprooted more than 2 acres of orange groves stretching back from the road where the mortar exploded. An officer supervising the work, who would give only his first name, David, said the attackers had hidden in a stand of date palms about 300 feet from the road and waited until an army escort jeep driving in front of the bus passed before detonating the bomb.
“They knew what they were doing,” David said. “This bus goes down this road every weekday at 8 a.m. and goes back every afternoon. They knew this was a bus of women and children.”
At a junction near where the attack occurred, dozens of angry settlers examined the wrecked bus, prayed and denounced Barak and his government.
“This is what we get for restraint,” said a hand-lettered sign in Hebrew stuck under the windshield wiper of the bus.
The two teachers killed were Miriam Amitai, a 35-year-old mother of four, and Gabriel Biton, 34, a father of five.
Settlers, many of them armed with rifles or handguns, said they had been shot at frequently in recent weeks as they traveled roads between the settlements, which are under Israeli control but lie near Palestinian villages. There have been numerous attacks with roadside bombs, and just Saturday, a Palestinian police officer infiltrated the edge of Kfar Darom and killed two Israeli soldiers guarding the settlement.
An estimated 6,500 Jewish settlers live among more than 1 million Palestinians in Gaza. Their presence has been one of the most contentious issues in now-defunct peace negotiations. Palestinians want the settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, to be removed from Gaza and the West Bank, land that eventually will form a Palestinian state. Some Israelis, especially those on the left, agree that at least some of the settlements should be dismantled, but their position has become harder to argue amid the wave of violence.
The settlers maintain that they are the last bulwark.
“This is all Israel. If we have to evacuate Kfar Darom, then we have to evacuate Jerusalem,” Dayta Itzhaki, a settler spokeswoman, said as she rocked her 4-month-old daughter, Sinai, and watched settlers erecting a tent in which to stage protests. “We see the answer as to stay here and fight.”
Later Monday night, as the missiles crashed into Gaza City, some of the Kfar Darom settlers cheered.
Palestinians were furious at the airstrikes, especially since Arafat had disavowed the bus bombing. They said the attacks bolstered their calls for an international monitoring force to protect Palestinian civilians from Israel, a proposal that the United Nations is now considering.
“Do not dream that the will of the Palestinian people will be broken by this bombardment,” Ahmed Abdul Rahman, a spokesman for Arafat, said on Voice of Palestine radio. “This is our land. There is no alternative but to leave our land.”
Barak, who held an emergency Cabinet meeting for much of Monday, also ordered economic punishment for the Palestinians, including additional restrictions on the movement of gasoline and goods into Gaza and a tighter sealing-off of Palestinian cities and towns.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem and special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.