The ability of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to prevent attacks by Islamic extremists has been thrown into question by this week’s twin suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon.
The bombings – the bloodiest since Israel and the Palestinians signed the historic Declaration of Principles in September 1993 – left questions about how both sides handle security, the peace process’ raison d’etre for many Israelis.
Sunday’s attacks came only days after Israel lifted the closure it imposed Feb. 12 on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of reports that Hamas was planning to avenge the Jan. 5 Gaza Strip killing of master bombmaker Yehiya Ayash, also known as “The Engineer.”
Israeli officials, who neither confirmed nor denied Hamas allegations that the Jewish state was behind Ayash’s death, began easing the closure Feb. 15 to allow Palestinians older than 30 to return to their jobs in Israel. The closure was lifted entirely last Friday.
The deadly bombings – which struck a bus in the heart of Jerusalem and a soldiers’ hitchhiking station near Ashkelon, killing 26 people and wounding at least 79 – came after security sources had warned not only about the possibility that militants would avenge Ayash’s death, but that they also would mark the second anniversary of the slaying of 29 Palestinian worshipers at a Hebron mosque by Jewish settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein.
But in the aftermath of the bombings, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, dismissed suggestions that Israeli security forces should have been more alert in the wake of the lifting of the closure.
“If it wasn’t the 50th day [since Ayash’s death] it would have been the 60th,” he told reporters. “The Hamas does not need excuses. It has declared that it will act against us.”
Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz likewise said security and political measures were being taken to combat terrorism, adding that the lifting of the closure and Sunday’s attacks were not necessarily linked.
“Just because there was an attack immediately after the lifting of the closure does not mean it was because it was lifted,” he told Israel Radio.
In the Jerusalem attack on a No. 18 bus, a suicide bomber with a 22-pound bomb filled with nails and ball bearings killed 24 people and wounded 50 others, 10 of them seriously.
Two Americans were among those killed.
Matthew Eisenfeld of West Hartford, Conn., a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, died in the attack. Eisenfeld, 25, was studying for the year at the JTS campus in Jerusalem.
Eisenfeld’s girlfriend, Sarah Duker, 23, of Teaneck, N.J., who was spending the year in Israel, also died in the attack.
The attack came at 6:48 a.m., during Israel’s rush hour, as the bus waited at a traffic light at Jaffa and Sarei Yisrael streets, some 900 feet from the central bus station.
The blast destroyed the bus, leaving only a blackened, twisted frame. It damaged another local bus, No. 36, which was waiting behind it, as well as seven cars near the blast.
The second attack occurred in Ashkelon, less than an hour later, at a hitchhiking stop for soldiers.
The suicide bomber in that attack killed two people and wounded 29, including six who were in serious condition.
The attack was reportedly carried out by a terrorist dressed in an Israeli army uniform who mingled with soldiers waiting for rides.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the attacks in a leaflet distributed and signed by the “cell of the new students of Yehiya Ayash.”
The attacks came after a six-month halt by Hamas, which last attacked an Israeli target Aug. 21, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosion on the No. 26 bus in Jerusalem’s northern neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol, killing four people, including American Joan Davenny, 47, of Woodbridge, Conn.
Sunday’s bombings generated questions about the Palestinian Authority’s ability to control Hamas terrorists.
Days before the latest attacks, Palestinian officials had reportedly reached an agreement with Hamas militants, according to which the fundamentalists would halt attacks on Israel in return for the Palestinian Authority’s protection from Israeli retaliation.
Israeli intelligence officials briefing the Cabinet on Sunday repeated their assessment that the Palestinian Authority was not doing enough to get at the infrastructure of Hamas and the other fundamentalist groups.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, briefing reporters after Sunday’s attacks, said he had telephoned Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat and demanded that the Palestinian Authority stop the militants from carrying out their deadly missions.
“There is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority has thwarted a number of attempts to hurt Israel,” Peres said, confirming Palestinian officials’ recent claims that they had arrested a number of extremists, foiling attacks within Israel.
“At the same time, we demanded that the activities against the [infrastructure] of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad be stepped up, immediately and without hesitation,” Peres added.
Peres said Arafat had pledged to do so and that arrests of activists were already being carried out.
Peres, who has enjoyed a wide lead in the polls against Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu, was jeered when he visited the site of the Jerusalem blast.
Some Israelis reportedly chanted, “With blood and fire, we will throw out Peres,” a reference to Israel’s national elections on May 29.
Other Israelis gathered at the bomb site reportedly made death threats against the prime minister.
In his comments to reporters, Peres vowed to continue the peace process.
“We have no intention of surrendering to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Peres said. “We must continue to fight terror on the one hand, and continue peace discussions on the other.”
Peres said negotiations with the Palestinians would be suspended until after the mourning period, “as has become the practice.”
Peres, noting that Israeli security officials had information of possible future attacks, announced that Israel was reimposing the closure on the territories and was stepping up security checks at crossings between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
In the wake of the bombings, Israeli opposition parties refrained from openly attacking the government – but they called for a rethinking of the peace process.
The attacks elicited condemnations from world leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein and British Prime Minister John Major.
Pope John Paul II condemned the bombings in his Sunday address and extended his condolences to the victims’ families.