Israeli Officials Mull Response After Bus Bombing Kills at Least 14

Israeli officials are blaming the Palestinian Authority for a suicide bus bombing in northern Israel, but political sources say the government is unlikely to respond this time by isolating Yasser Arafat.

At least 14 people were killed and more than 45 injured Monday when a bus traveling from Kiryat Shmona to Tel Aviv exploded in northern Israel. The explosion occurred when a jeep packed with explosives drove up behind the bus near Hadera and blew up.

While Israeli officials had not announced a response, analysts said they seemed unlikely to renew the sort of siege imposed on Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters following a Sept. 19 suicide bombing in central Tel Aviv that killed six people and wounded more than 50.

That siege revived popular support for the Palestinian Authority president and badly strained relations with the United States, which was trying to build international support for a possible attack on Iraq.

Following heavy U.S. pressure and criticism, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called off the siege. Commentators then predicted that Arafat could count on a grace period from strong Israeli retaliation for terror attacks, at least until after the Iraqi crisis plays out.

Monday’s attack came as Israel, urged on by U.S. officials, was making efforts to ease hardships on the Palestinian population and seeking ways to advance the diplomatic process.

In the days before the attack, Israel had been lifting curfews imposed over the past few months on Palestinian population centers in the West Bank to prevent terrorists from infiltrating Israel.

Israeli police said the explosives-packed jeep apparently came from the Jenin area, three days after Israeli troops pulled out of the city and lifted its curfew.

As Israeli officials determine their response to Monday’s terror attack, they may well start by reimposing the curfews.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently said that Israel’s dilemma is that as soon as it eases restrictions on the Palestinian populace, terrorists exploit the situation to carry out attacks.

The military wing of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack, saying it was revenge for the killing of eight Palestinians during clashes in the Gaza Strip last week.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres blamed the Palestinian Authority for the attack, saying it is doing nothing to fight terrorism.

“We know it may be impossible to prevent all acts of terror, but the least we expect is that the Palestinians really show an effort to stop it even if they did not organize it,” Peres told Reuters television from Luxembourg, where he met with E.U. foreign ministers on Monday.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, who advocates hitting hard at the terrorist infrastructure, said the attack should surprise no one. He called on Israel to step up its pressure on all Palestinian terrorist centers.

“We have to look for all the terrorist infrastructures in all the Palestinian cities,” Landau was quoted as saying by Army Radio.

President Bush condemned the bombing, calling it another reminder of the importance of achieving peace and halting terrorism.

The attack came as the assistant U.S. secretary of state, William Burns, was holding talks in the region on ways to revive the diplomatic process.

Israeli officials charged that the attack was aimed at undermining the mission by Burns, who was due to arrive in Israel on Wednesday.

According to reports, the No. 841 Egged bus had stopped to pick up passengers at Karkur junction when the jeep pulled alongside and blew up.

The massive fire that engulfed the bus hampered rescue efforts. Witnesses spoke of watching helplessly as people inside were burned alive.

Guy Yechiel, a witness, said he was traveling with a friend when he heard the explosion.

“It was huge, like something I’d never heard before,” he told Israel’s Channel Two Television. “We ran over to help the wounded. I saw a soldier lying on the ground, his hands were fluttering. I grabbed them and asked him, is he okay, does he need something. And then he just died.”

The method used in Monday’s attack was similar to a June 5 bus bombing on the same road, in which a car bomb blew up beside a bus near Megiddo junction, killing 17 people.

Islamic Jihad also claimed responsibility for that attack.

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