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Israel Blast Marks Return of Violence

Times Staff Writer

Galit Gabai climbed aboard the No. 19 bus Thursday with the heady flush of fresh beginnings. Not only was this her first day on the job at a downtown Jerusalem camera shop, but the 29-year-old also was looking forward to signing a lease on a new apartment, completing her move from southern Israel.

A few stops later, her sunny world went abruptly black.

Gabai, sitting behind the bus driver, did not see the bomber who detonated the powerful explosives on board, killing at least 10 passengers and the attacker as the bus rolled beneath the pines and eucalyptus trees of Aza Street in one of Jerusalem’s toniest neighborhoods.

It was the first suicide bombing in Jerusalem since September and the first deadly bus strike since August. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, took responsibility for the attack. Authorities identified the bomber as Ali Munir Jaara, a 24-year-old Palestinian police officer from Bethlehem.

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Israeli police said the blast just before 9 a.m. appeared to have occurred near the back of the nearly full bus. At least 44 people were injured.

For survivors and witnesses, the bombing meant that the violence had returned to Jerusalem, accompanied by a collage of ghastly images.

“I saw black,” Gabai recalled later. “I heard screaming. I looked at myself and saw that nothing happened to me. Next to me, a woman was lying on the floor. All her insides were spilling out. I stayed for a few minutes on the bus and didn’t look back. Then I stepped over her and got out.”

Naim Barazani, a 63-year-old retired accountant, also struggled to shake an awful mental picture: that of two severed heads on the bus floor near where he was hurled down during the explosion.

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Barazani was riding the bus to market as he always did on Thursday. Soon after he boarded, “the bus flew up in the air,” he said from his bed at Bikur Cholim Hospital, which received 11 of the injured. He saw the heads and lost consciousness.

The force of the blast sent fragments of the bus and bits and pieces of the passengers’ belongings -- from engagement books to water bottles -- scattered over a half-block area near the official home of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was not there at the time, officials said.

One resident said his wife was looking out the window of their home at the time of the explosion and saw a chunk of the bus’ roof fly over a 50-foot palm tree. Later, a 10-foot roof section lay on the street next to the bus’ scorched husk. A second length of crumpled metal sheeting, also from the bus, lay draped over a street sign. Tufts of burned fabric dangled from the trees.

And among the apartment houses on either side of the bus, the blast had blown out windows and left residents quaking.

“I felt the ground shaking. I thought it was an earthquake. Then I realized it must have been a pigu’a,” said Shoshana Kertes, a 24-year-old immigrant from Hungary, using the Hebrew word for terrorist attack.

On the street, the scene was quiet, then chaotic.

Dror Duga, a 17-year-old student on his way to high school, said he was walking about 75 feet away when the explosion lifted the bus 6 feet into the air. Duga and his friend, Ido Kaslassi, also 17, were tossed to the sidewalk by the force of the blast, then looked up to see people tumbling out of the big openings where bus windows once were.

“The first five minutes were quiet. Then the screaming began. People were screaming they were on fire,” Dura said. An hour after the incident, he was ashen and shaking, and his jacket still bore the smudge from his fall.

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Some victims were hurled 100 feet away, said Eli Beer, a supervisor with an Israeli rescue service and one of the first helpers to arrive.

Some of the survivors who were able to walk or run fled immediately, fearful of a follow-up explosion, he said. Rescuers found the injured as far away as half a mile.

Other injured passengers, meanwhile, pulled themselves to the sidewalk near the blast site and waited along a low wall until help arrived.

Stephan Ben Shoshan, who owns a cafe a few doors away, recalled seeing the bus -- rolling slowly in rush-hour traffic -- as he pulled up to his shop. A moment later, the vehicle was in shreds.

“Part of an arm landed behind me. I covered it with my sweater and moved on. I was the first to the scene, but I couldn’t help,” Ben Shoshan said from behind his counter, his eyes red-rimmed from the ordeal. On the shelf, rows of dainty chocolates lay in a tidy array.

At Bikur Cholim Hospital, Gabai counted herself among the lucky. The jeans she had been wearing were in tatters. She was shaken but unhurt.

Still, Gabai said she was no longer sure she wanted to remain in Jerusalem, where she had arrived 10 months earlier from the Red Sea town of Eilat.

The recent lull in suicide attacks here hadn’t made her complacent, she said, “but I never thought it would happen to me.”

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In a nearby room, Barazani lay in a neck brace, his face flecked with cuts. He argued with his brother, who was pointing out that there were good Arabs and bad ones.

Barazani wanted to hear none of that, not as long as the gruesome pictures remained in his mind’s eye.

“This nightmare,” he said, “is not going to go away.”


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