JERUSALEM (Mar. 1)
Israel’s security situation deteriorated this week, as terror claimed more victims. At least one person was killed and nine wounded in an explosion in a taxi van Thursday near the city of Umm el-Fahm in the Lower Galilee.
Police suspect the bomber, who was seriously wounded in the attack, was involved in the planting of a bomb in central Tel Aviv on Wednesday. That bomb was discovered in time and was exploded by police bomb experts, destroying a restaurant but injuring no one.
Later on Thursday, a driver tried to run over Israelis waiting at a hitch-hiking post near an army base, then fled the scene. No one was hurt in that attack.
A Palestinian killed eight Israelis in a similar hit-and-run attack last month.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he is convinced the two bomb attacks were linked and were part of an effort by Palestinian terrorists to try Israel’s endurance.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh expressed concern that terrorist activity, which has stepped up since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in October, was "creeping into the heart of Israel."
A previously unknown group, the "Battalions of the Seven," claimed responsibility for Thursday’s bombing, according to Qatari television.
But Sneh blamed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, charging that he allows terror groups to operate unimpeded in Palestinian territory.
Palestinian officials released dozens of terrorists shortly after the Palestinian uprising began last fall, and Arafat has refused to condemn the anti-Israel attacks of recent months to either Israeli or U.S. satisfaction.
The chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, warned Wednesday that the Palestinian Authority was devolving into a "terror entity" on Israel’s border, encouraging and even participating in attacks.
Also Wednesday, an Israeli security guard was wounded when shots were fired at workers building a highway just inside Israel’s pre-1967 border. Israeli military officials said gunmen crossed into Israel from the adjacent Palestinian town of Kalkilya, fired and fled safely back to the Palestinian areas.
Israel sealed off Kalkilya in response.
Thursday’s bomb explosion occurred on the Wadi Ara Road, one of the arteries linking central Israel with the north.
The road passes through the Arab population center in the Lower Galilee.
Umm el-Fahm, the largest Arab city along the road, in recent years has become the base of Israel’s fundamentalist Islamic Movement.
Reports said police began chasing the taxi van from the Tel Aviv area after receiving information that a terrorist with a bomb might be heading north. At one point, a police car stopped traffic and began checking cars.
The explosion occurred when a police officer began checking the passengers in the van.
"The police officer had opened the door to the taxi and begun checking the passengers when there was a huge explosion," said Daniel, a truck driver who was near the scene.
Police said the bomber apparently was sitting in the back of the van. The head of the police’s northern district, Alik Ron, said it appeared the other travelers were innocent bystanders.
One woman was seriously injured. Some passengers were trapped inside the twisted remains of the vehicle, and helicopters were summoned to evacuate the wounded to hospital.
Ron said police did not have further information on terrorist cells that might be working inside Israel.
Police said roadblocks set up in central Israel in the wake of Wednesday’s failed attack were not necessarily linked to the hunt for the bomber in Thursday’s attack.