Israel Reels As Terror Bombing Hits Bus Stop in a Coastal Town

A U.S.-brokered cease-fire has gone up in a puff of smoke.

Recent days have seen increased diplomatic efforts aimed at ending more than nine months of Israeli-Palestinian violence — but these latest efforts have failed.

On Monday, two Israelis were killed when a Palestinian suicide bomber struck in the Israeli coastal town of Binyamina, located midway between Netanya and Haifa.

Monday’s attack — which wounded at least 11, three of them seriously — took place at a bus station near the town’s train station, police said.

Witnesses said they saw a suspicious-looking person at the bus stop, which is frequented by soldiers, and alerted police before the blast took place.

The two dead Israelis were both soldiers — one a man, the other a woman.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon branded the bombing “a cruel and terrible attack which shows that the Palestinian Authority has yet to decide to act against terror.”

Late Monday, Israeli tanks shelled Palestinian checkpoints in the West Bank in retaliation for the attack.

A television station in Lebanon said it received a statement from Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility for the attack.

Sharon’s communications adviser, Ra’anan Gissin, told Army Radio the suicide bombing was a slap in the face from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who met a day earlier in Cairo with Foreign Minister Peres.

After Sunday’s meeting, which lasted more than an hour, Peres said he had told Arafat that Israel is waiting for seven days of complete calm before starting peace moves.

But ensuing events provided little reason to believe there would be calm — complete or otherwise — anytime soon.

Late Sunday night, hours after the Peres-Arafat meeting, two Palestinians were killed while preparing a bomb near a Jerusalem stadium where the Maccabiah Games were due to officially open the next day.

And on Monday, in some of the fiercest fighting since the Palestinian uprising began last September, Israeli tanks moved into Palestinian-controlled parts of Hebron and exchanged heavy fire with Palestinian gunmen.

During the firefight, Israel destroyed four police posts operated by the Force 17 presidential guard and wounded nine people before withdrawing.

Israel said its incursion came in response to heavy shooting by Palestinian gunmen at Israeli security forces and civilians in the volatile West Bank city.

The fighting dampened hopes that the Peres-Arafat meeting might somehow breathe life into a cease-fire recently mediated by U.S. officials.

Speculation that Arafat and Peres might meet had circulated since last week, when it became clear that both would be in the Egyptian capital for separate talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The meeting came on the heels of talks last week in Ramallah between Arafat and Sharon’s son, Omri.

Before meeting with Arafat, Peres held talks with Mubarak and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. Along with Mubarak, E.U. envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos was said to have been involved in arranging the Peres-Arafat meeting.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Peres received a green light as early as July 11 from Sharon to pursue direct contacts with Arafat — on the condition that Peres would convey only a message that he and Sharon had agreed on beforehand.

Sharon’s oft-declared stance that he will not negotiate while Palestinian violence continues was turned against him by right-wing ministers who criticized the premier for letting Peres meet with Arafat.

Sharon defended the Cairo meeting — as he had defended a previous Peres-Arafat encounter in Lisbon last month — by saying the foreign minister had not engaged in negotiations, but had reiterated Israel’s demand for an end to all violence, terror and incitement.

Peres’ meeting with Arafat “dealt with one issue: an end to terror and return of security for Israeli citizens,” Sharon said Monday.

“In this area, I think we can make every effort.”

Sharon dispatched Omri to meet with Arafat on July 12 and deliver a personal message reassuring him that Israel has no plans to assassinate or unseat Arafat.

Omri Sharon also was directed to reiterate that there would be no negotiations until there was a complete halt to violence.

Sharon’s meeting followed a report in the London-based publication Foreign Report that Israel has a military plan to destroy the Palestinian Authority and expel Arafat from the territories.

Israel denied the report. On Sunday, Peres assured Mubarak that Israel has no such plan.

Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat reportedly expressed concerns about the report during a meeting last Friday with the deputy U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Satterfield. Satterfield also met Saturday with Arafat.

The State Department said the Bush administration has no knowledge about an Israeli plan to overthrow the Palestinian Authority.

At a news conference with Mubarak on Sunday, Peres said Israel is seeking a political solution to the current conflict, and that it must continue the dialogue with Arafat, “the elected leader of the Palestinian people.”

At the same time, Israel has indicated that despite its ongoing policy of restraint, it will not tolerate continued violence and attacks.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel will not allow any attack to pass without a response.

Sharon was quoted as saying that even those attacks that do not result in Israeli casualties will not go unanswered.

At Sunday’s meeting, the Cabinet agreed to build new towns in a southern part of the country it offered the Palestinians last year in exchange for land in the West Bank.

Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar said all but one minister at the meeting supported the decision to build towns in the unpopulated Halutza Sands area of the Negev Desert near the Gaza Strip.

During talks with the Palestinians last year, no agreement was reached on the land-swap proposal.

In addition to the fighting in Hebron, two Israelis were lightly wounded Monday by glass shards when shots were fired at their car as they passed an Arab village in the West Bank. An Israeli was killed in a Palestinian shooting attack in the same area earlier this month.

Also on Monday, the head of the Palestinian preventative security force in the West Bank called on Palestinians to refrain from carrying out attacks inside Israel.

Israel Radio quoted Jibril Rajoub as telling Voice of Palestine Radio that the Palestinians must be aware of world opinion when planning their attacks.

He did not rule out attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In another development Monday, Israeli security forces arrested another Palestinian in connection with the lynching last October of two Israeli reserve soldiers in Ramallah. Last month, the security forces disclosed they had arrested a Palestinian who was photographed waving his blood-soaked hands after the lynching.

Monday’s fighting in Hebron erupted days after Palestinians killed two Israelis in the area.

Yehezkel Mualem, a member of the city council in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, was shot last Friday while protesting a previous terror attack.

A day earlier, terrorists shot and mortally wounded David Cohen, 31, of Betar Illit, who later died in a local hospital.

Last Friday, a Hamas militant was killed in a car bombing that Palestinian officials blamed on Israel. Israel gave no formal comment, but Israeli security sources noted that Fawwaz Badran was linked to two suicide bomb attacks in Netanya this year and had been on Israel’s list of wanted terror suspects.

In the Gaza Strip over the weekend, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian who was planting explosive devices near Jewish settlements.

Palestinians fired mortars at the Jewish settlement Netzarim, located in Gaza, and at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, inside Israel. There were no injuries.

There also were scattered incidents in and around Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem, but no Israeli injuries.

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