NEW YORK (Nov. 21)
It is barely a week into Israel’s election campaign season and Palestinian terrorists want their voices to be heard.
A suicide bombing aboard a crowded Jerusalem bus Thursday sent the apparent message that there will be no halt to terror as Israelis spend the next two months deciding who their next leader will be.
Eleven people were killed and about 50 wounded in Thursday’s bus attack. Many of the passengers were schoolchildren.
Ten of the victims were from Jerusalem: Hodaya Asaraf, 13; Marina Bazarski, 46; Yelena-Hadassah Ben-David, 32: Kira Perlman, 67, and her grandson Ilan Perlman, 8; Sima Novak, 56; Yafit Ravivo, 13; Ella Sharshevsky, 44, and her son Michael Sharshevsky, 16; and Dikla Zino, 20.
The 11th victim, Varga Mirsa, 25, was a tourist from Romania.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, but Palestinian sources reportedly said the bomber belonged to Islamic Jihad. Last week, after Palestinian snipers killed 11 Israelis in Hebron, the two groups also competed for “bragging rights.”
In the wake of the attack, a top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, apparently decided to rub salt in Israel’s wounds, stating that Palestinian suicide bombings are an effective weapon, despite Israeli claims that the Jewish state will never bow to terror.
Rantissi said such attacks are what prompted the newly elected leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, to declare this week that he would uproot Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip immediately upon taking office.
Mitzna, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz before he won the Labor Party’s leadership primary Tuesday, also said he would resume talks with the Palestinians without condition and would withdraw from most of the West Bank within a year of taking office.
Given Mitzna’s dovish stance, one might wonder why Rantissi said what he did, particularly since it was highly likely to make at least some Israeli voters question whether they would really want to support Mitzna.
Then there is another consideration: Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is squaring off against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon next week in a Likud leadership primary.
Rantissi’s comments — to say nothing of Thursday’s brutal bus bombing — could prompt Likud voters to back the more hawkish Netanyahu over Sharon.
The latest opinion polls show Sharon likely to beat Netanyahu in the Nov. 28 Likud vote, but they were based on surveys conducted before Thursday’s terror attack.
Additional attacks before the Likud vote — or more statements from Hamas like those made by Rantissi — could change the outcome of the primary.
And with the winner of the Likud primary likely to become Israel’s next prime minister — as current opinion polls suggest — Hamas terrorists could well be on their way toward helping the cause of Israeli hawks, as they did back in 1996.
At that time, a series of deadly terror attacks were widely cited as helping Netanyahu narrowly defeat Shimon Peres in the race for the premiership.
If Hamas finds it preferable to have an Israeli hawk in office, then the movement will likely attempt more terror during the current Israeli election campaign.
Indeed, Hamas may well prefer Sharon or Netanyahu over Mitzna.
A hawkish Israeli leader, by Hamas calculations, would make a peace accord that much harder to achieve — and Hamas has long made it clear that peace with Israel is not on its agenda.
Meanwhile, officials in the Palestinian Authority — whom Sharon has long accused of being complicit in terror — welcomed the call from Mitzna to restart peace talks.
Some Palestinian officials said they believe they could reach a peace settlement with Israel if the dovish ex-general is elected prime minister.
On Wednesday, the morning after Mitzna’s victory in the Labor leadership vote, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat welcomed the vote’s outcome.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Ramallah, Arafat said he was prepared to complete the peace process with Mitzna.
But Arafat and his aides have stopped short of giving an outright endorsement of Mitzna.
Palestinian backing for Mitzna could well boomerang among Israeli voters — just as Sharon’s attempts to sideline Arafat only bolstered the Palestinian leader’s popularity among his constituents.
Meanwhile, Mitzna is far from embarrassed by the positive signals coming from the Palestinian Authority.
“If the biggest of our enemies is congratulating me on my election, perhaps that is a sign that in the future there will be someone with whom to talk and something to talk about,” Mitzna told Israel Radio.
Across the Israeli political spectrum, officials have spent more than two years trying to come up with an effective formula for dealing with Palestinian terrorism.
Sharon has chosen the military option, while Mitzna offers the prospect of negotiations that come with no preconditions.
But even should Israeli voters want to try Mitzna’s course of action, past experience has shown that diplomacy does not bring an end to terror attacks from Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups.
For now, however, the question facing Sharon was how to deal with the latest attack.
Following the bus bombing, Sharon convened his Security Cabinet for an emergency meeting to discuss Israel’s response.
The blast occurred at 7:15 a.m. as Egged bus No. 20 was leaving the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Menachem heading to the center of the city.
Police said the terrorist boarded the bus and traveled several stops before detonating a powerful bomb.
World leaders condemned the bus bombing.
President Bush said he is “greatly disturbed” by the attack. At the same time, Bush said it remains U.S. policy to see two independent states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.
Bush made the comments during a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Prague. Blair called the attack an “outrage.”
Strong condemnations were also issued by the European Union and Germany.
Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, urged the nations of the world, especially Europe, to threaten to cut ties with Arafat if he does not put a halt to Palestinian terrorism.
Katsav said such a threat would be far more effective than most anything Israel can do, Israel Radio reported.
One student, 10th-grader Maor Kimche, 15, told The Associated Press that he had just boarded the bus when the blast went off.
“Suddenly, it was black and smoky. There were people on the floor. Everything was bloody. There was glass everywhere, and body parts,” Kimche said.
Kimche, who was lightly injured in the left leg, jumped out of a bus window and was scooped up by a taxi driver who took him to nearby Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem, according to the AP report.
Following the attack, Netanyahu came to the hospital with 10 ambassadors to visit victims.
The Russian ambassador to Israel met with a 25-year-old woman who had made aliyah from the former Soviet Union and put her through on the phone to her parents in Russia.
Commenting on Hadassah’s role in dealing with Israeli terror victims from a host of attacks, Netanyahu told the envoys, “You have no idea how many victims have been saved at this hospital.”