JERUSALEM (Oct. 19)
A political firestorm has erupted here in the wake of this week’s bus attack in Tel Aviv, with the opposition blasting the government for not cracking down enough on the Palestinians.
Amid a mood of anger and frustration at the third terrorist attack to strike Israel in 10 days, four opposition Knesset factions submitted no-confidence motions in the government.
Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu warned that if Rabin did not crack down on the Palestinians, he will be “personally responsible for a wave of disasters that will follow.”
The bomb exploded about 9 a.m. local time Wednesday, shattering a Dan bus traveling north along Dizengoff Street in the heart of Tel Aviv’s shopping district. The bomb also ripped apart a second bus traveling in the other direction.
According to initial police reports, the explosion killed at least 22 people and left over 40 wounded, some seriously. Witnesses reported finding body parts strewn across the streets of Israel’s largest city.
Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement opposed to peace with Israel, claimed responsibility for the latest attack, as it had the two earlier ones.
On Oct. 9, two Hamas members opened fire on a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing two and injuring 13 others.
QUTRAGE AGAINST ‘CONSCIENCE OF THE WORLD’
That same day, Hamas operatives kidnapped Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, who died along with his captors and Nir Poraz, an Israeli commando, last Friday, when Israeli soldiers attempted his rescue.
Claiming responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, an anonymous caller to Israel Radio said the bombing was in reprisal for the killing of Waxman’s captors during last Friday’s rescue attempt.
Israeli authorities said they believed Wednesday’s attack was the work of a suicide bomber who boarded the bus with more than 100 pounds of explosives. It was unclear whether the terrorist had the bombs strapped to his body or whether the explosives were carried aboard in a bag.
Police kept back bystanders and brought in bomb experts after a suspected second bomb was found at the site. According to Tel Aviv Mayor Ronnie Milo, police delayed removing bodies from the charred, twisted metal of the bus because they thought the body of the terrorist was booby-trapped.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin cut short a trip to the United Kingdom upon learning of the attack. Rabin, who first heard about the attack during an interview on a local radio station in London, blamed Islamic radicals for trying to destroy the peace process.
“It is the continuation of the attempt by those who are the enemies of peace, the extreme Islamic terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” he said.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres vowed that Israel “will not hesitate to find those responsible for this terrible action and to prevent them in the future.”
In Washington, President Clinton termed the Tel Aviv attack an “outrage against the conscience of the world.”
The terrorist “violence is aimed at destroying the hopes of the Palestinian people as surely as it is directed at the people of Israel. They must not be allowed to succeed,” said Clinton.
In the wake of the bombing, the army sealed off the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Authorities had re-opened Gaza on Monday, after closing it in the wake of Waxman’s kidnapping.
The attack came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were meeting in Cairo to discuss expanding autonomy in the West Bank. Israel has maintained that the Palestinian Authority has done too little to rein in extremist Islamic groups.
Peres said Wednesday that it was “too early” to say if Israel would move ahead with the peace talks.
CALLS FROM KNESSET TO SUSPEND PEACE TALKS
In a statement from Gaza, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat condemned the bombing and extended condolences to the victims of the attack.
“Pushing forward with the peace process and implementing the rest of the agreement is the only way to respond to the enemies of peace who are getting their support, their training and financing from well-known outside parties,” he said.
Arafat apparently was alluding to Iran’s fundamentalist regime, a known sponsor of Islamic groups that militantly oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
But Arafat’s statement did not mollify the opposition.
As news of the attack spread, a storm broke out in the Knesset, with opposition members shouting at Peres, “The government is murdering the people of Israel.”
Netanyahu called on the government to permanently close the Gaza Strip.
“It is clear Yasser Arafat is not lifting a finger against the Hamas,” he said.
Ariel Sharon, a Likud member of Knesset and former defense minister, called for the immediate formation of an emergency national unity government.
Calling on the government to suspend peace talks with the PLO until Arafat reins in militant Palestinians, Sharon also said the government should grant the Israeli army authority in the territories and close the PLO’s offices in eastern Jerusalem.
Tsomet Knesset member Rafael Eitan attacked the accord with the PLO.
“Not two days ago I stood on this podium, and said, ‘How long will it be until a car bomb goes off in the heart of Tel Aviv?’ Whoever was responsible for opening the borders to Gaza could not have expected any other result,” Eitan said.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal, who cut short a trip to the United States, described the bombing as one of the worst acts of terror ever experienced in Israel. He warned that Israel would “escalate the struggle against terrorists.”
Wednesday’s bus attack exploded the euphoria felt nationwide following Monday’s signing of a draft peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
Fayez Tarawneh, head of the Jordanian team negotiating peace with Israel, also condemned the attack. “This is too much,” he said. “The whole idea of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan is to ensure security and peace for the two nations and their peoples.”
President Ezer Weizman, who visited the wounded in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, appealed for calm. “We must continue with the peace process,” he said. “I appeal to the citizens of Israel to take a deep breath.”
Meanwhile, in a separate incident in Jerusalem on Wednesday, an Israeli soldier was stabbed and lightly wounded by a Palestinian. The suspect was apprehended by police.