Within hours after a suicide bomber blew up a Jerusalem bus, the Israeli Cabinet voted to implement a plan to separate the Israeli and Palestinian populations.
The decision to invest in separating Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip comes as the Peres government, reeling from a series of attacks by the fundamentalist Hamas group in the past week, vowed to root out the terrorist cells and destroy them.
“This is an all-out war, which requires unilateral measures” that must be “implemented immediately,” Prime Minister Shimon Peres said after Sunday’s blast, the third bombing in eight days.
“We have decided to give the war on terror top priority,” Peres said. “We will use every means and will not be deterred.”
The blast Sunday in Jerusalem was an eery repetition of the Feb. 25 suicide bus bombing near the city’s central bus station, in which 26 people, including the bomber, were killed. Two young Americans were among the dead.
Also Feb. 25, a suicide bomber blew up a soldiers’ hitchhiking post in Ashkelon, killing one other person.
Sunday’s bombing left at least 19 dead, including the bomber, and at least 10 wounded. All the victims were believed to be passengers on the bus.
Six of the dead were Romanian workers who had come to Israel to replace Palestinian workers banned from entering Israel.
The attack occurred as the bus drove along the same route, No. 18, as the earlier bombing, which occurred one week ago to the day at about the same time.
Sunday’s blast, which occurred at 6:25 a.m. as the bus made its way along Jaffa Road, blew off the roof of the bus, scattering blood and body parts and shattering storefronts.
“The bomb used was very similar to the one last week,” Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz told reporters. The bomb used Sunday contained more than 30 pounds of explosive and was filled with nails.
Hefetz stressed that an overall solution for the security situation must be found.
“Attacks happened everywhere, in Jerusalem and other places and not just on buses,” he said.
The separation plan adopted by the Cabinet as its weekly meeting Sunday includes constructing a perimeter fence along the line between Israel and West Bank and Gaza and creating 18 crossing points to monitor travel between the two areas.
Peres said $100 million had been allocated for the separation plan.
In addition, the Cabinet approved the creation of a special force of 800 security guards to protect public buses.
The guards will be drawn from former members of Israel Defense Force combat units.
A plan to deploy additional police and security reinforcements in Jerusalem, also approved by the Cabinet, “has already begun,” Peres told reporters. “We will fill this city with the security forces needed to ensure its security.”
Police and soldiers also will be stationed at bus stops and hitchhiking stops throughout the country to check passengers, the prime minister said.
In a measure seen as an effort to deter suicide bombers, the ministers approved steps against the families of bombers, which would include sealing their homes and demolishing them.
Peres said this would bring an end to the “celebration of the martyr bombers.”
He said the homes of the two Hamas militants believed to be responsible for the Feb. 25 twin bombings would be sealed. The attackers were from the West Bank village of Al-Fawwar, near Hebron.
Peace negotiations with the Palestinians, suspended after the twin attacks, will not resume until Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat takes a sufficient measures against the fundamentalist groups, Peres told the Cabinet.
But President Ezer Weizman, seeking stronger action, called on the Peres government to suspend immediately all negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The peace process will not run away, we must suspend it, until we find a solution,” he told Israel Radio.
Weizman also urged all political parties to put aside their campaigns for the May 29 Knesset elections and join in working toward a solution to the security challenges.
Peres held consultations Sunday with opposition leaders, but he ruled out the possibility of establishing a national unity government.
At a time like this, “I do not differentiate between parties,” he told reporters. “The entire country is right and left, young and old. I am convinced that we must first focus on this war against terror, and I believe this is the first priority of all parties.”
The attack comes as public opinion polls showed a shrinking gap between Peres and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the race for the premiership.
Peres, who once led Netanyahu by as much as 15 percentage points, has seen that lead drop to virtually nothing after the wave of Hamas terror attacks.
The Likud distanced itself from the anti-government demonstrations that erupted Sunday after the attacks, and called for unity.
“I met this morning with the prime minister and told him we would support the government if it takes intensive measures against terror,” Netanyahu said in the Knesset. “I hope he adopts some of the measures I proposed.”
Netanyahu called for imposing a total closure on the areas where terrorist organizations operate, closing down Orient House – the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in eastern Jerusalem – and giving Israeli security forces freedom of activity in all areas.
Among those who rushed to the scene of Sunday’s bus bombing was Edward Abbington, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, who surveyed the site in this jogging clothes.
“I heard the explosion go off, it was only about 400 meters from the consulate,” he told Israel Radio. “I immediately went there. It was like a scene out of hell.”
Expressing his horror at the bloody scene, Abbington said, “I can’t understand how people can do this, and just tear people up with bombs.”
When Peres arrived to survey the scene, he was jeered by a crowd shouting anti- government and anti-Arab slogans.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who was also at the site, appealed for clam.
“All of our hearts are broken. I appeal to citizens, use restraint, we now have to deal with the problem,” Olmert, also a Likud Party Knesset member, told Israel Radio.
U.S. envoy Abbington said he phoned arafat after returning from the scene of the attack and “suggested that he ban groups like the Islamic Jihad and [Hamas], make membership in them illegal, and that he arrest and imprison those people who belong to those organizations.”
Arafat issued a condemnation of the attack from his headquarters in Gaza.
And for the first time, the Palestinian leader said he would outlaw the military wings of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations in the self-rule areas.
Israeli security officials were checking reports that the bomber was a university students from the Hebron area.
Hamas, which claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bus bombing, announced a three-month moratorium on attacks as long as Israel a chance to consider its offer, issued last week, to halt attacks against Israeli civilians in exchange for a prisoner release and other conditions.
The attack also comes as the closure of the West Bank and Gaza after the twin bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon was still in effect. Security officials recommended that the easing of the closure for humanitarian reasons, announced at the end of last week, be immediately revoked.
In addition to the three Hamas bombings, one Israeli was killed last week in Jerusalem when an Arab American plowed his rented car into a crowded bus stop. The driver was shot dead by two civilians.
Hamas claimed responsibility for that attacks as well.