A fresh wave of attacks against Israelis has compounded the uncertainty that President Clinton can forge a last-minute Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the weeks before he leaves office.
In the Gaza Strip on Thursday, two Israelis were killed and two injured in an explosion near the border with Israel.
The explosion occurred near the Sufa Crossing in southern Gaza. Police sources told The Associated Press that the explosion occurred when Israeli soldiers were attempting to dismantle a roadside bomb.
Hours earlier, at least 13 people were injured, two of them seriously, when two pipe bombs exploded on a commuter bus in Tel Aviv during lunch-time traffic on a busy thoroughfare.
Police said more serious casualties were averted due to a malfunction in one of the devices, which they said were set off by remote control.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak described the attack as “deplorable” and vowed to “reach the perpetrators and those who dispatched them.”
Hours later, Barak renewed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thursday’s attack came just days after Israel relaxed a previous closure and began letting Palestinian workers return to jobs in Israel.
In another incident Thursday, an Israeli was moderately wounded when shots were fired at his car near the West Bank settlement of Alon Moreh.
In Washington, Clinton condemned the violence, saying it “reminds people of what the alternative to peace is.”
Clinton, who earlier this week presented Israeli and Palestinian negotiators with the broad outlines of a peace accord, said Thursday’s terror attack in Tel Aviv was “the best argument for going ahead and finishing” the peace process.
Clinton said his proposals were based on what he had heard from the two sides during his term in office.
“If there is a peace agreement here, I’m convinced it’s within the four corners I’ve laid out,” he said.
Islamic fundamentalist groups had threatened earlier this week to step up terrorist attacks amid intensified efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to reach a peace agreement. Arafat released scores of terrorists from jail shortly after the Palestinians began their violent uprising against Israel three months ago.
Thursday’s attacks came amid diplomatic uncertainty over the future of Clinton’s proposals.
Israel on Thursday approved the ideas, on condition that the Palestinians also accept them as the basis for an agreement.
While refraining from formally rejecting the ideas, the Palestinians raised a series of reservations that they said must be clarified before they make a final decision.
As a result of their reservations, Barak canceled a planned summit on Thursday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Egypt.
Regardless, Arafat traveled to Egypt to confer with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Arafat later said an Arab summit would convene next week to review the U.S. proposals. Clinton’s proposals call for far-reaching concessions by both Israel and the Palestinians.
Most controversial for Israelis is a proposal to cede control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, to the Palestinians. The plateau today houses an important mosque.
Israel also would divide Jerusalem into a patchwork of neighborhoods, with Arab neighborhoods coming under Palestinian rule.
In exchange, the Palestinians would scale back their demand that descendants of the Arab refugees who fled or were expelled in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence – some 4 million people in all – be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel. Even the most dovish Israelis consider this a veiled call to eliminate the Jewish state.
Barak has been harshly criticized for conducting negotiations under the deadline of Israel’s Feb. 6 elections. His re- election chances are believed to hinge on reaching a deal with the Palestinians before the balloting.
The opposition Likud Party has likened Barak’s efforts to a “clearance sale” of vital Israeli assets, and said they will not be bound by any agreement if they win the election.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert on Thursday relocated his office from downtown Jerusalem to a building next to the Western Wall in the Old City, despite Palestinian threats to react with violence.
Olmert said the move, to last a week, was meant to underscore the possibility that Jews could again lose the Western Wall. Between 1948 and 1967, when the Old City was under Arab control, Jews were denied access to the Western Wall, despite agreements on free passage to holy sites.
The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Thursday’s double-bombing on the Gaza Strip border fence, Israel Radio reported.
Israeli explosives experts had spotted one of the bombs on the border fence and had called in reinforcements when it went off, followed by the second blast.
Initial reports said that Hamas had claimed responsibility for the bus bombing in Tel Aviv, but a group calling itself the Saladin Brigades later took responsibility.
In the attack, two pipe bombs exploded on the back of a Dan bus No. 51, traveling from downtown Tel Aviv to the suburb of Petach Tikva.
“When I reached the bus stop near the Recital reception hall, I heard an explosion coming from the back seat. I opened the doors to let the passengers off when we heard the second explosion, from which passengers were wounded,” driver Yigal Reichman was quoted as saying.
Four of the 13 wounded were Israeli soldiers, including one woman who was put on life support and described as being in serious to moderate condition.
Israeli police cordoned off the area and sappers defused explosives that had not gone off. Police are still investigating how bombs were planted aboard the bus.
One person detained for questioning was released after police found he had no link to the incident.