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Behind the Headlines: Twin Suicide Bombing Shatters Hope of Reviving Peace Process

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A week that began with promise ended in bloodshed. The twin suicide bombs that shook Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda on Wednesday struck not only the heart of the nation’s capital but also any immediate hope of reviving the moribund peace process.

The colorful open-air market, with its maze of stalls filled with fresh produce and noisy vendors, brings tens of thousands of Jerusalemites each day to buy their food.

The market also attracts many tourists.

The blasts killed at least 14 people, including the two terrorists, who reportedly carried suitcases containing explosives into the heart of the crowded market.

Dressed in black jackets and ties, the two apparently stationed themselves several dozens of yards away from each other and set off their explosives one after the other, according to an initial inquiry.

At least 150 people, including several Arab workers, were injured.

The names of the victims were not immediately available.

David Boneh, a butcher in his 40s, said the attack came as a complete shock.

“Last winter, when all the bombs were going off, I expected something to happen all the time.

“Things in Jerusalem have been quiet for over a year, and I’d stopped worrying,” he said, referring to a wave of bombings that rocked the country in February and March 1996.

This week’s attack came on the eve of a planned trip by Dennis Ross, U.S. special Middle East coordinator.

Ross’ mission, intended to jump-start the moribund peace process, was postponed “for an appropriate period of mourning,” President Clinton announced at the White House on Wednesday.

The terrorist attack is the first one to strike the center of Israel in over four months. The fundamentalist groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas both reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombings.

On March 21, a suicide bomber struck a Tel Aviv cafe, killing three Israelis. Hamas was responsible for that attack.

The March strike, along with the building of a Jewish housing project in southeastern Jerusalem, led to a virtual freeze in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

After months of inaction, a burst of diplomatic activity was seen in the region over the past week, including the first high-level meetings between Israelis and Palestinians in months.

And unlike his other recent trips, which proved unsuccessful, this time Ross was expected to arrive armed with a detailed American proposal designed to jump-start the stalled negotiations.

Whether that proposal — said to include a suspension of new construction by Israel in disputed areas and closer security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — would have produced any results is a question no one is likely to answer soon.

Israeli officials said after Wednesday’s attack that no talks can occur until Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat takes concrete action to wipe out the terrorist infrastructure in the autonomous region.

All focus on negotiations quickly dissipated Wednesday as the collective mourning began.

Ambulances had to contend with heavy traffic to reach the injured and dead, several of whom remained in grave or serious condition on Wednesday evening. The market skirts Jaffa Road, the busiest street in the capital.

Rescue crews had to make their way through thousands of people, many of whom appeared to be in shock.

At the scene, police and soldiers assisted the ambulance crews, who searched through the wreckage for casualties.

Much of the activity revolved around a popular butcher store that was destroyed by the blast.

Many of the burned and bleeding victims had been in the store or just outside it, shopping for fruits and vegetables.

An hour later, when the last victims had been rushed to area hospitals, security personnel emptied trash cans in search of other, unexploded bombs.

At the same time, gloved Orthodox men and army medics searched the market for body parts.

Jewish law stipulates that all body parts must be buried.

Standing just outside their shops or behind police barricades, those who escaped injury said they were grateful to be alive.

“I heard two explosions, one after the other, and if I’d been standing outside, like I usually am, and not by the refrigerator, I would have been killed,” said Boneh, whose nearby butcher shop was rocked by the blasts.

Meir Inbar, a 48-year-old shopper, said he had come to the market that afternoon “specifically to avoid a terror attack.”

He said he had heard on the previous evening’s news the army chief of staff say he feared an increase in terrorist attacks because of increased cooperation between the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas organization and the Palestinian Authority.

“So instead of shopping in the shuk at night, when the prices are lower,” he said, using the term for an outdoor market, “I came now, when I thought it would be less crowded.”

Inbar said that when the blast occurred, “I saw a woman thrown into the air and then saw her fall to the ground. There was a fire, then smoke everywhere. It was horrible.”

Inbar, a former career army officer, lashed out at both the government and the Israel Defense Force.

“I knew that something could happen at any time, so why didn’t the prime minister or the army? The writing has been on the wall, but no one is reading it.”

Jamee Vassallo, a 19-year-old woman from Oregon who was in Israel on a Christian prayer tour, said, “Before coming here I didn’t have a real picture of what Israel was like. Attacks like this opened my eyes to what Israelis are going through. Now I know what I am praying for.”

In Washington, Clinton condemned the killings in a special news conference called immediately after the attack.

“We must not let the enemies of peace prevail,” he said.

The president said he did not know whether the Palestinian Authority could have done something to prevent the attack, but he said he expected Arafat to increase “security operations” and strengthen security cooperation with the Israelis.

Arafat telephoned both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Ezer Weizman to express condolences.

But the premier rejected Arafat’s words, telling him sorrow is not enough.

Netanyahu said Arafat must act resolutely against the terrorist organizations.

“We expect not only words of consolation from the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “We expect action.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein denounced the attacks and phoned Netanyahu to express their condolences.

Netanyahu called a state of emergency in the nation and designated Thursday as a day of mourning.

Officials sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip until “further notice.”

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