Israeli government leaders vowed to continue the pursuit of peace, despite the terrorist bomb that killed five Israelis and injured 30 on the eve of Israel’s 46th Independence Day this week.
The bomb exploded Wednesday morning on a bus in the central Israeli town of Hadera, one hour before sirens went off across the country to mark the annual Memorial Day of mourning for fallen soldiers.
Also killed was the apparent suicide-bomber, a terrorist from the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement. Hamas claimed credit for the attack, as it did a similar bombing which killed seven Israelis in Afula a week earlier.
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, widely criticized for failing to condemn last week’s attack, said Wednesday that “terror attacks such as these strike only at the cause of peace and harm only the innocent.”
Just before a scheduled address to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, the PLO leader said he had learned of the attack that day “against innocent Israelis.”
“All the extremist forces, on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, have launched a sort of escalation which is impossible to stop,” Arafat said. He linked the latest attack to the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron in February and last week’s car bombing in Afula.
Arafat added, “It’s the delay in implementing the decisions of the autonomy talks that causes these catastrophes, because it gives these extremists the possibility to have good reason to act.”
Arafat’s remarks drew a lukewarm response from the Clinton administration.
In a letter received by Clinton on Wednesday, apparently dispatched before the attack in Hadera, Arafat said he “regretted and strongly rejected” terrorist actions against Israelis “because they are directed against innocent people and claim to strike against the peace process and destroy it.”
At a briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mike McCurry was noncommittal with respect to whether the administration was satisfied with Arafat’s reaction to the killings.
“It’s clear from his statements that the chairman recognizes these acts for what they are and that he strongly rejects them,” McCurry said in response to a question.
“We think that all parties should condemn violent acts against innocent people in the strongest possible terms,” he said, adding that Arafat’s statement Wednesday was stronger than the one he had made the previous week in response to the Afula bombing.
McCurry also said that the tragedy in Israel “reinforces the urgency of coming to closure now” on the Palestinian self-rule accord.
The bomb highlighted the slow pace of last September’s accord between Israel and the Palestinians to deliver peace and security for either side.
Wednesday was the date, under the accord, for Israel to conclude withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. Instead, talks on implementing the accord have dragged on. While withdrawal is seen as only a few weeks away, early euphoria has long vanished and support for groups opposing the accord, such as Hamas, has grown.
Israel’s right-wing opposition responded to the Hadera bombing with a unanimous demand to halt peace talks until the terror wave is ended.
But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking at Memorial Day ceremonies at Jerusalem’s military cemetery, said talks will continue.
“Israel will continue, despite every obstacle, to reach out towards peace in order to put an end to mourning,” he said.
Heads of Arab municipalities in Israel all outspokenly condemned the latest attack as aimed at the peace process.
Wednesday’s attack by Hamas follows a vow by the organization to exact vengeance before Independence Day for the Hebron massacre perpetrated by a Jewish settle.
The group, which promised a total of five attacks, said it would make Independence Day as much a time of mourning as the attacker in Hebron, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, made for Arabs on the Muslim festival of Ramadan.
Police say that the Hadera bomb was almost certainly planted on the bus in a suicide mission by a resident of the West Bank’s Samaria district.
The West Bank has been sealed off from Israel proper since last week’s terror attack in Afula.
A second bomb, timed to explode one hour after the first explosion, was discovered later on the bus in Hadera. It was removed and safely detonated.
The bus was traveling from Afula to Tel Aviv, and was just pulling out from the Hadera station when the inferno erupted. Of the 30 people injured in the explosion, one received moderate wounds and the rest were only lightly hurt.
Eighteen of the injured were army personnel on their way home for Independence Day. Survivors of the blast spoke of walking over dead children as they escaped.
Immediately after the attack, a spontaneous demonstration erupted at the Hadera bus station, with protesters yelling “Death to the Arabs!” and “Down with the government!”
Rabin, in a radio broadcast to the nation on Independence Day eve, noted that 23 Israelis had been killed in terror attacks since the start of the year and 21 of these had been killed within Israeli proper.
No closure of the territories could put a total stop to terror, said Rabin.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, speaking to bereaved families of fallen soldiers, vowed that “just as we have always overcome the armies of our enemies, so shall we overcome the terrorists’ onslaught.”
President Ezer Weizman, a pilot during the War of Independence, spoke at the Air Force Memorial, where he called for restraint, greater national unity and a continuation of the peace process.
In Washington, members of Congress reacted sharply to Arafat’s statements, calling for a full condemnation of the terrorist acts in a letter sent Wednesday to Arafat.
“As members of the United States Congress, we call on you to unequivocally condemn the bombings at Afula and Hadera that killed 13 Israelis,” read the letter, authored by Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.).
“With this most recent attack in Hadera and a series of five attacks promised, your lack of response approaches complicity,” the letter continued.
“It is essential, if the Palestinian leadership is to remain credible it the eyes of the world, that these terrorist attacks be condemned,” it said.
According to Deutsch’s office, more than 100 members of Congress had signed the letter by late Wednesday.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Wednesday that the letter was necessary because of Arafat’s “oblique” response to the killings.
Meanwhile, traveling in Germany, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali condemned the attack in Hadera and other recent violence which has caused Israeli and Palestinian casualties, a U.N. spokesman said.
The U.N. chief “condemns in the strongest possible terms this latest act of violence, as well as the recent escalation of violent incidents which have resulted in Israeli and Palestinian casualties,” the spokesman said.