The Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously to seal off the Gaza Strip and West Bank following Sunday’s suicide bombing at a crowded bus stop near the coastal city of Netanya.
The Cabinet reached the decision Sunday evening after the ministers broke off their regular session earlier in the day when news of the attack was first reported.
The attack prompted President Ezer Weizman, whose post is largely ceremonial, to step into the political arena with a call to postpone Israel’s ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians.
“I believe we should now suspend the talks – not stop them, but suspend them and tell him [Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat] to make a bigger effort” to put an end to terrorist attacks against Israelis, Weizman told Israel Television.
At least 18 people were killed, most of them soldiers, and more than 60 wounded when two explosions took place at a snack bar near the bus stop.
“I started running in the direction of the explosion to see what happened. I saw some people lying on the ground,” David Sachor, an eyewitness, told Israel Radio. “Then there was a second explosion, two minutes after the first one.”
The Islamic Jihad movement, which militantly opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, took responsibility for the attack.
The group said the attack involved two terrorists, both of whom came from Gaza, But authorities said it was still unclear whether two suicide bombers carried out the attack or if one terrorist with explosives strapped to his body set off the first bomb and then blew himself up in the second explosion.
The incident took place at the Beit Lid intersection between Netanya and the West Bank town of Tulkarm. The site, which is a busy transit point for soldiers, was crowded with troops who were waiting for buses to return them to their bases after spending the weekend at home.
The first explosion went off at about 9:20 a.m. local time. A second, larger explosion followed minutes later.
Of the 14 dead positively identified so far, two were civilians.
Some 46 of the 62 people who were wounded were still in nearby hospitals Sunday night. Of those, 14 were said to be in serious condition.
The bombing was the bloodiest terror attack in Israel since a suicide bomber killed 22 people aboard a Tel Aviv bus last October.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who arrived at the scene with Police Minister Moshe Shahal, called the attack another attempt by Muslim extremist terror groups to undermine the peace process.
“There are no words to describe the atrocity that was carried out at the Beit Lid junction,” Rabin said.
Angry Israeli demonstrators, who arrived at the scene before Rabin, greeted the prime minister with shouts of “Rabin the Traitor” and “Death to Arabs.”
Rescue teams arrived at the site soon after the explosion. They evacuated the wounded to nearby hospitals in Netanya, Kfar Saba and Hadera. Some serious cases were flown to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
Medical teams, members of the army rabbinate and the Chevra Kadisha burial society spent much of the day sifting through the debris, collecting disembodied limbs and flesh for examination and burial.
Cranes were brought in for workers to search for body parts that were strewn among nearby trees.
After cutting off their regular Cabinet session earlier in the day, government ministers reconvened in the evening for a special session to discuss measures that should be taken in the wake of the attack.
Many ministers called for a reassessment of current security measures to prevent future terrorist attacks inside Israel. But most of them also reiterated that the peace process must not be halted.
The Cabinet issued the order to seal off Gaza and the West Bank after less than an hour of the special emergency session. The closure means that all Palestinians from the territories will be barred from entry into Israel unless they have special permission covering medical or other humanitarian reasons.
Such closures, which have been applied in the past following major terror attacks, have resulted in a diminution of such incidents during their duration.
But invariably they are lifted after a time – in part as a result of pressures on behalf of the Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom are cut off from their jobs and livelihoods in Israel as a result of the closures.
The ministers continued their deliberation late into the night, and informed sources said further measures were under consideration.
Attending the session were top-ranking officers from the Israel Defense Force, the police, the Shin Bet and other agencies.
Reacting to the attack, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres disagreed with Weizman’s call for postponing peace talks.
“It is clearly a further strain on the peace process, but this is not a reason to stop the peace process to satisfy the attempts of the people who want to assassinate the peace process, Peres told Israel Radio.
“We must find a solution from an operational point of view, not a political point of view,” he said.
Peres also said that if it were proven that those responsible for the attack did indeed come from Gaza, Israel would demand that the Palestinian Authority crack down on the Islamic Jihad and Hamas fundamentalist movements there.
Shahal was expected to renew his call for stationing additional police at roadblocks between Israel and the territories, and also for stationing police at bus stations like the one at Beit Lid, where an IDF unit has already been operating to ensure security at the site.
Earlier in the day, Rabin and other government officials spoke of the need for a total separation between the Israelis and Palestinians in the face of the difficulties Israeli security forces have encountered in preventing terrorists from getting into Israel.
“It’s very difficult to stop a terrorist from coming to commit a suicide attack or plant a bomb,” Environment Minister Yossi Sarid told Israel Radio.
“The security branches are doing their utmost, but even the best security branches cannot prevent all kinds of terrorist attacks and such a kind in particular,” he said.
Palestinian officials condemned the attack in the name of Arafat, who did not, however, speak publicly about the incident.
Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab who is an adviser to Arafat, issued a statement saying Arafat condemned the attack.
“Chairman Arafat condemns the attack which has injured innocent people near Netanya,” Tibi told reporters. “The aim of these attacks is to kill the peace process, and it is the responsibility of all of us to prevent the enemies of peace from reaching their goals.”
Israeli opposition members called both for an immediate halt to the negotiations with the PLO and for the Rabin government to step down.
Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack proved the government’s weakness and its failure to combat terror.
Members of the National Religious Party also called on the government to resign. The right-wing Tsomet party said the attack was a reminder of what would happen if the IDF withdrew from Arab population centers in the West Bank, which is the next step called for, in implementing the Palestinian self-rule accord.
Protests were held at several sites in Israel following the attack.
The attack drew a swift condemnation from President Clinton, who said, “Once again, the enemies of peace have struck down innocent people in an evil effort to destroy the hopes of peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Arabs.”
Several American Jewish groups issued statements deploring the attack Sunday, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Congress, the State of Israel Bonds and the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha.
The Conference of Presidents said it was “waiting to hear PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s personal condemnation” and called on the international community to “act in a concerted way to cut off funds and arms to these [terrorist] groups.”
An army spokesman released some of the names of the dead soldiers on Sunday night.
They were: Lt. David Benzino, 20, of Ashdod; Lt. Adi Rosen, 20, of Moshav Bizzaron; Lt. Yuval Tuvia, 22, of Jerusalem; First Sgt. Anan Khadour, 24, of Daliat al-Carmel; Staff Sgt. Damian Rosovsky, 20, of Moshav Kaddim; Sgt. Maya Kupstein, 19, of Jerusalem; Sgt. Daniel Tsikvashvilli, 19, of Jerusalem; Sgt. Yaron Blum, 20, of Jerusalem; Cpl. Eli Dagan, 18, of Kochav Yair; and Cpl. Eitan Peretz, 18, of Nahariya.