Diplomatic Tiff Emerges, Subsides over U.S. Reaction to Bus Incident

The Israeli Embassy here appeared satisfied with the State Department’s determination Tuesday that last week’s attack on an Israeli passenger bus, which killed 14 people, was an act of terrorism.

But an embassy official sharply criticized the State Department for reporting that the Palestine Liberation Organization had called the incident “a tragedy.”

Israel has criticized U.S. reaction to the July 6 tragedy, when an Arab man from the Gaza Strip commandeered a Jerusalem-bound passenger bus, forcing it off the road into a ravine, where it burst into flames.

The incident, in which 27 people were injured, was the deadliest attack against Jews since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising.

A diplomatic exchange over U.S. reaction to the incident escalated Tuesday, when the Israeli Foreign Ministry called a news conference to chastise the United States for not calling the incident an act of terrorism.

Speaking in Jerusalem, Alon Liel, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, asserted, “If the United States does not call it terrorism, in fact it gives a license to kill to every Palestinian individual or organization.”

The United States, in its initial reaction to the attack last Thursday, called it a “senseless, tragic incident,” but did not describe it as an act of terrorism.

‘CLEARLY AN ACT OF VIOLENCE’

But on Tuesday, State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said, “It was clearly an act of violence against innocent civilians. I think in everybody’s minds that would constitute an act of terrorism.”

The Israeli official in Washington said his government was satisfied with Boucher’s statement Tuesday that it was a terrorist act.

But the official, who requested anonymity, criticized the State Department for implying the PLO “spoke with great sympathy and understanding at this terrible terrorist attack.”

The official quoted Bassam Abu Sharif, a PLO spokesman, as saying last Friday: “The attack on the bus was a human reaction. No one can control human beings under desperate conditions. He who protects his rights and opposes occupation is not a terrorist. If it were so, George Washington himself would be a terrorist.”

Abu Sharif’s statement shows once again that the PLO’s renunciation of terrorism in December, which paved the way for a U.S.-PLO dialogue, is meaningless, the Israeli official said.

In New York, leading American members of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East wrote a letter Tuesday to Abu Sharif in which they called on him and the PLO leadership to “strongly condemn” the bus attack and “all other acts of violence against innocent civilians.”

The letter was signed by 10 members of the center’s American executive committee, including five who met last Dec. 6 with PLO leader Yasir Arafat in Stockholm.

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