16 Die as Violence Sweeps Mideast
In a day of bloodshed, nine soldiers and civilians were killed Sunday when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a commuter bus in northern Israel, and three more people died hours later in a gun battle outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s walled Old City.
The violence continued after midnight, when Palestinians opened fire on a car near the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, killing an Israeli couple and injuring two of their children, the army said. That attack followed several other ambushes Sunday that left 10 Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers wounded. And an armed Palestinian in a wetsuit was shot dead by soldiers as he emerged from the Mediterranean in the northern Gaza Strip.
The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing. The organization is pressing ahead with a campaign of revenge for Israel’s slaying last month of the head of the group’s military wing. Hamas has vowed to kill 100 Israelis for every one of its leaders assassinated by Israel; other Palestinian groups vowed to join in.
Angry Israeli officials promised to retaliate for Sunday’s carnage and postponed high-level talks with officials of the Palestinian Authority planned for this week. But the Israeli government appears to be running out of options as it attempts to head off what seems like a steady supply of Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen. Reoccupation of most of the West Bank has slowed but not stopped the attacks.
Israel is resorting to demolishing homes belonging to the families of suicide bombers--nine were destroyed overnight Saturday--and will attempt to deport relatives of some attackers. Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, head of Israel’s Central Command, signed an order Sunday to expel the sister of a man Israel believes sent two suicide bombers to a Tel Aviv bus station last month. Two male relatives of other militants are appealing their deportation orders. The army maintains that these relatives had some link to the attacks.
Sunday’s blast in the northern Galilee hills during the start-of-the-week rush hour turned the crowded passenger bus into a fireball. Mangled bodies were hurled from the vehicle, whose roof was peeled away and whose sides were twisted and shredded.
Other passengers were trapped in the burning bus, screaming for help, witnesses and rescue workers said.
“I have been working in the field for 22 years and have never seen such an atrocious scene,” said Hanan Sofer, head of the local Magen David Adom emergency ambulance service.
Boaz Altshuler, a passenger who was wounded, was about to get off the bus when flames engulfed him. “I went to the door to get off and just then there was an explosion,” he told Israeli television. “I felt a ball of fire in the face and parts of people flew by.”
Avraham Freed, who owns the Meron Inn at the intersection where the bus exploded, was one of the first to rush to the scene in the normally tranquil pocket of Israel north of the Sea of Galilee.
“There were things shooting through the roof and bodies were tossed out of the windows,” he said. “There was nothing we could do. Who could have believed that something like this would happen here?”
Freed reached the bus, about 50 yards from his inn, and used a bottle of water to wash blood from the faces of survivors. No one on the bus escaped injury. Nine people plus the bomber were killed and about 50 were injured. The fire, which raged for more than 10 minutes before rescuers could extinguish it, will make identifying the dead difficult, authorities said.
The driver, who survived his second bus bombing in six years, told police that he did not recall a suspicious passenger boarding the bus, which departed from the port city of Haifa about 7 a.m. and traveled east toward Safed, a mystical religious city that is also the site of a major army base. The route has several stops in Arab villages.
Hamas said the attack was the work of a suicide bomber. In a departure from previous cases, the group would not identify him, to protect his family from Israeli retaliation. In a bombing at the cafeteria of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University last week, a Hamas operative planted the explosive and fled, detonating it by remote control.
Most of the passengers on Bus 361 were soldiers returning to base after weekend leave. But Arabs were also aboard and were among the dead and injured, said Dr. Oscar Embon, director of the Rebecca Seiff Hospital in Safed, where most of the victims were taken. A 22-year-old soldier, Aryeh Shenkar, was among the wounded. He was undergoing surgery to remove metal fragments from his back. His aunt, Nitzhya Buschbaum, was visibly angry as she waited in a hospital corridor.
“They want to put all of the Israelis into the sea, but that, we don’t give them,” she said.
Sami Hamud, a Druze from the village of Beit Jan, rushed to the hospital when he received a call alerting him that his wife, Dina, was wounded. She had caught the bus early to reach school in Safed in time for an exam. Hamud feared she was dead.
“I’m happy because I’ve been given my wife back,” he said from her bedside once they were reunited.
Her face and neck were badly cut.
The dead included three Israeli soldiers, an Israeli Arab woman and two Filipino women, authorities said.
Israelis were only beginning to absorb the news from the north when a gun battle erupted in bustling East Jerusalem, just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate.
A 19-year-old Palestinian armed with a pistol leaped onto the passenger-side running board of a truck from the Israeli telephone company Bezeq. He fired into the cab, killing a security guard, then opened the door, pulled the guard out and fired at the driver, according to witnesses.
Israeli paramilitary border police, stationed throughout the area, heard the shooting and descended on the site, firing pell-mell, the witnesses said. They shot the gunman dead, and a 51-year-old Arab man sitting in a cafe also was killed. About 16 people were wounded, including border guards and Palestinian workers, shoppers and merchants. A few were shot, apparently by police, witnesses said.
“When a terrorist is in an area crowded with civilians, it’s very possible that some of the civilians would be hit,” said Jerusalem’s police chief, Mickey Levy.
Before he was killed, the gunman had time to reach the strip of cafes and fruit stands across from Damascus Gate and reload his gun, witnesses said. He looked calm and steady as he returned to continue shooting before being shot himself, they said.
There was pandemonium. “So many people came running into my shop, scared, crying,” said Ala Sublaban, 25, who runs a tobacco store.
“This was the worst thing I’d seen since 1967,” the year of the Middle East War, said money changer Samir Dajani. “They were shooting from all directions and at everything, coming up Salahadeen Street and up from Damascus Gate. People were running in all directions.”
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the incident as well as several other attacks Sunday in the West Bank.
In two separate attacks, seven Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers were injured while driving between settlements north of Ramallah and near Tulkarm. Three soldiers were injured during raids in Nablus.
Meanwhile, in the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian in a wetsuit as he came ashore along the Mediterranean coast. The man had an automatic rifle and grenades and apparently swam along the coast before emerging near the Jewish settlements of Dugit and Alei Sinai, the army said.
Arafat’s Palestinian Authority condemned Sunday’s bus attack but said in a statement that Israel’s policy of “mass detentions, repressive measures and home demolitions” was responsible for the cycle of violence.
President Bush said he was “distressed” over the latest Middle East bloodshed.
“There are a few killers who want to stop the peace process that we have started. We must not let them,” Bush told reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he was vacationing.
Kennedy reported from Meron and Safed, and Wilkinson from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Kennebunkport contributed to this report.