“Oh, God. When will this all end?” These words echoed the sentiments of many Israelis in the aftermath of this week’s dual suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon, which claimed the lives of 26 people and wounded at least 79 others.
David Oberman, one of the first people on the scene of the Jerusalem bombing, appeared dazed four hours after the attack.
The owner of a nearby bagel shop, Oberman recalled hearing “a loud, loud crash. I ran outside and saw that a bus had exploded. My first thought was that we had to get people out of the bus.”
“My second thought was that a second bomb might go off at any minute,” he added. In previous suicide attacks, there was a second bomb blast timed to go off just as rescue workers were rushing to help the victims of the first blast.
“Some people decided to hold back, while others went directly to the victims – and both had good reasons to do what they did,” Oberman said. “But it was very confused, total chaos.”
Sunday’s blasts, which occurred at two of the country’s busiest intersections at the height of rush hour, saddened and shocked a nation just recovering from the November assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Evidently designed to cause the maximum amount of carnage, the attacks came at the start of the busy work week, when buses typically overflow with soldiers on their way to their bases, with children on their way to school and with adults on their way to work.
The Jerusalem blast occurred at 6:48 a.m. on a local bus that was stopped at a red light just a block away from the central bus station. The suicide bomber killed 24 people and wounded 50 others, 10 of them seriously.
Two Americans, Matthew Eisenfeld, 25, a Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student from West Hartford, Conn., and his girlfriend, Sarah Duker, 23, of Teaneck, N.J., were among the dead.
The second attack took place some 50 minutes later at a hitchhiking stop for soldiers near Ashkelon. That suicide bomber killed two people and wounded 29, including six who were in serious condition.
In much of central Jerusalem, life came to a virtual standstill as dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene almost as soon as the first blast occurred.
All main roads leading to the central bus station were sealed as rescue crews evacuated the injured and the dead.
On the scene in less than five minutes, rescue workers searched for victims in the twisted wreckage of the bus, while members of Chevra Kadisha, the fervently Orthodox burial society, combed the bus, the street, even tree branches for body parts.
According to Jewish law, all bodies, including dismembered parts, must be buried within 24 hours.
The first casualty Oberman encountered was a 16-year-old boy.
“I found the boy lying on the pavement and I pulled him away from the bus, which was smoking. I carried him to an ambulance, and his wounds appeared superficial. He was in shock and couldn’t open his eyes, but he was coherent.
“It was only later, after the doctors took X-rays, that we learned that he had shrapnel in his brain. His mother, who was sitting beside him, was sent to another hospital. I don’t know her condition.”
Oberman added that before he accompanied the teen-ager to the hospital, “two other people were placed inside the ambulance. One, a woman soldier, was burned and hysterical. The second, a young man, seemed to have third-degree burns over much of his body.
“I think the soldier probably made it. The man with the burns seemed much worse off. I feel sick to my stomach, both physically and otherwise.”
Even after the destroyed bus and other damaged cars and buses were removed from the scene three hours later, hundreds of people still milled about the Jerusalem bomb site.
Some set up makeshift shrines with pieces of twisted wreckage and lit memorial candles.
Many others shouted anti-government slogans and called for an end to peace negotiations with the Palestinians. About 100 police prevented angry onlookers from spilling into the street.
When Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited the site of the explosion, he was jeered – and his life was reportedly threatened by some members of the crowd.
“There’s got to be a better way,” said Eliahu Sharabani, a yeshiva student. “This government has to be changed because they don’t do enough to ensure security.”
Asked whether a Likud-led government would be able to prevent such attacks, he replied, “I’m not sure of anything, but we won’t know until we try.”
Yohanan Ramati, who arrived at the scene about 11 a.m., said he empathized with the victims and their families.
“I’m one of the people who lost a child to terror,” he said. “My daughter Eliora was killed in the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992.”
Argentine authorities have yet to find those responsible for the embassy car bombing, which killed 29 people and left more than 100 injured.
Though he neither carried a banner nor shouted slogans, Ramati was nonetheless critical of the government.
“I do not believe that the government’s talk about separating Jews from Arabs is serious. It can’t be done. The only way to do this – and I’m not suggesting it – is to get all Arabs out of the country.
“Many Israeli Arabs are no different from Arabs living across the Green Line in that they, too, support Hamas.
“As long as Jews live by the principle that Arabs can live in Israel but that Jews cannot live in areas under Arab rule, peace cannot be achieved,” Ramati said.
Others, such as 20-year-old Tali Eliahu, said they needed time to think about the attack and its implications for the future.
“Right now, I’m still in shock. This morning we called all our relatives to see if they were all right, and my brother called from Hong Kong to check on us,” she said.
“I feel sad – angry, too – but mostly sad. It hurts so much. Believe it or not, on Shabbat I was thinking that because there haven’t been any attacks lately, peace was really coming.
“I was against the peace process in the beginning, but after Rabin’s assassination I began to think that Rabin’s way was the right way.
“Now, I don’t know what to believe,” she said.
As casualty reports continued to come in throughout the day, Jerusalem buses appeared as full as ever.
But something seemed to have changed.
Instead of engaging in noisy conversations, passengers on bus No. 18 – the same line that was attacked that morning – listened raptly to the radio broadcasts of the latest death toll.
“Oh, God. When will this end?” cried an elderly woman, wiping away tears with a handkerchief.
“B’olam habah,” replied her neighbor, an old man weighed down with groceries. “In the world to come.”