TEL AVIV (Jul. 6)
Fourteen people were killed and 27 injured Thursday, when an Arab man commandeered a passenger bus and forced it off the road, sending it plunging more than 100 feet down a rocky hillside, where it burst into flames.
The Arab, who was one of the passengers, shouted “Allah akhbar” (God is great) as he grabbed the steering wheel of the bus, which was on its way to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
The tragedy, by far the deadliest since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising 19 months ago, occurred shortly before noon on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, near the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, about 10 miles from Jerusalem.
The injured included the would-be suicide attacker, who was hospitalized in Jerusalem under heavy police guard, and the bus driver, Moshe Elul.
The steep slope of the terraced, rock-strewn hillside made rescue operations difficult.
Israel Defense Force helicopters were called in to evacuate seven seriously injured persons. Those who sustained moderate to minor injuries were taken by Magen David Adom ambulances to three Jerusalem-area hospitals and to the government-run Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer.
The dead were taken care of by officials of the hevra kadisha, the Jerusalem burial society.
The No. 405 Egged bus left Tel Aviv at 11:15 a.m. local time, with 42 passengers and the driver. The police said two passengers were unaccounted for. If they were only slightly injured, they may have walked away from the scene.
A RESIDENT OF THE TERRITORIES
The driver gave an account of the incident from his hospital bed. He said his hour-long trip from Tel Aviv had been routine for the first 30 minutes, until he was approached by a male passenger.
“I thought he had come to ask me a question, as frequently happens,” Elul said. “But he suddenly jumped on me, braced his legs on a side bracket and jerked the wheel to the right.
“The bus veered to the right and plunged down the very steep hillside, overturning several times and landing on its roof, when it burst into flames.”
Police Commissioner David Kraus said the assailant was identified as a resident of the administered territories. He would give no further details while the investigation is in progress.
The man reportedly has refused to answer questions. Israel Radio reported that a relative who might have pertinent information has been detained.
Kraus said the incident was the second such attack on a bus in recent months. But the traffic manager of Egged, which operates Israel’s interurban bus service, said there had been two prior incidents.
In both cases, the drivers managed to overpower their assailants, sustaining only minor injuries, he said.
The Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, dispatched two ambulances from Jerusalem only minutes after the crash. It also sent out a call for volunteers, 60 of whom reached the scene within minutes.
A paramedic told reporters that “the terrain made it impossible for the ambulances to reach the overturned bus.”
A small helicopter managed to land on a narrow ledge half way down the hillside. It ferried bodies and the injured from there to larger helicopters and ambulances on the road.
AMERICANS AMONG THE INJURED
The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem said five American tourists were among the injured. Their names were not released pending notification of their families.
One American woman in the bus said she was on the way to Jerusalem to watch her daughter compete in the gymnastic finals of the 13th Maccabiah, the Jewish Olympic-style games under way in Israel this week.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said, “We condemn this senseless, tragic incident, which again points to the urgent need to replace violence with dialogue and accommodation.
“Our condolences go to the families of the victims of the crash, and we wish a speedy recovery to them,” he said.
In Israel, the bus attack was denounced by politicians of all stripes, with those on the right demanding “immediate, maximum, harsh measures” to stamp out the Palestinian uprising and those on the left stressing the need for a political solution to halt murderous attacks of this kind.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Likud termed the attack the work of a “mad terrorist,” a crime “typical of the intifada murderers.”
Vice Premier Shimon Peres of Labor denounced the attack and said investigators should establish whether the attacker acted alone or on the orders of an organized terrorist group.
Knesset member Ronni Milo of Likud said the attack should be used to press the United States to halt its contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunis.
But as of evening in Israel, no terrorist group had claimed responsibility.