JERUSALEM (Jan. 29)
“How will I find anyone alive?” the 21-year-old security guard asked as he broke down the door and climbed onto the charred ruins of bus no. 19, stepping over body parts and choking on the smell of burned flesh.
Then Nir Azouly spotted a young woman with dark curly hair slumped in her seat, her face and eyes drenched in blood. She was breathing, and he moved aside the body at her feet to pick her up and carry her off the bus.
Azouly kept going in after that, pulling out five people — including a teenage boy stuck between seats — from the tangled carnage of the bus that had been full of morning commuters.
At least 10 people were killed and dozens were wounded in Thursday morning’s suicide bombing in Rehavia, a quaint residential neighborhood of the capital. The bomber left a note calling the attack revenge for Israel’s killing of five terrorists and three bystanders in a Gaza Strip raid the day before.
“There was a huge fireball and the bus went up in flames,” eyewitness Meshulam Perlman, a florist, told reporters. The blast scattered debris and body parts as far as the prime minister’s official residence, though Ariel Sharon was at his Negev Desert ranch at the time.
The Al-Aksa Brigade, part of the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack. The United States, United Nations and European Union all condemned the attack.
Terrorists “have once again stuck a blow against the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
The attack came a day after Israel killed eight Palestinians — five members of Islamic Jihad and three bystanders — in gun battles in the Gaza Strip.
Thursday’s attack also clouded a landmark prisoner exchange between Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, brokered by Germany.
Azouly and another security guard were the first ones on the bus moments after it exploded on a street lined with cafes and flower shops.
“I saw a lot in the army, but what I saw today there are no words for,” said Azouly, who was released from a paratrooper unit just over two months ago.
He is a security guard on Jerusalem’s city buses and had been traveling on a no. 19 bus in the opposite direction when he heard the thunderous rip of the other bus exploding.
Azouly jumped off and ran the 10 yards to the bombed-out bus.
Identifying the bodies has been a slow process, said Tal Malovec, spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, because the bodies are in such bad condition. She said the blast was especially powerful.
“I mostly saw bodies in pieces. It was hard to identify what I was seeing,” Azouly said. “The bus was full of smoke. There was a stench of bodies and death.”
Among the passengers was Victor Chaim. He had just stepped onto the bus at the previous stop and was looking for a seat when the explosion occurred. Chaim was hurled backward and injured both his legs lightly. Someone pulled him out of the bus, dragging him by his jacket.
“It was chaos. The people in front of me were not moving,” he said, “and the silence after the explosion was incredible.”
Chaim, 41, who immigrated from France a year ago, said the bombing would not shake his determination to stay.
“I want to stay in Israel. This is my life here, in this land,” Chaim said, speaking from his bed at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital.
As if timed to ratchet up regional tensions, the bombing came just as Israeli forensic scientists were in Cologne confirming that three bodies recovered from Lebanon were soldiers killed in a border ambush in October 2000. Also repatriated was an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was abducted by Hezbollah shortly afterward.
The forensic team’s findings gave the green light for Israel to free some 435 Arab security prisoners. Many Palestinians who gathered to meet their liberated kinsmen in the West Bank carried yellow Hezbollah flags, a mark of the prestige the swap bestowed on the Lebanese group.
Freed Lebanese prisoners received a hero’s welcome in a ceremony in Beirut.
Tannenbaum and the bodies of the dead soldiers arrived back in Israel on Thursday evening. The coffins of the soldiers, draped in Israeli flags, were on display in a hangar at the base, where several hundred people gathered for a state ceremony.
Tannenbaum will be questioned by intelligence officials about how he ended up in Hezbollah hands, Ha’aretz reported. After his arrival, he spent time with his family and then was taken for a medical examination.
Many Israelis worried that the swap would encourage terrorist groups to kidnap more Israelis and hold them for ransom.
“We will grind our teeth at the almost unbearably heavy price we are paying for captives both alive and dead, and we will also wilt with worry that the wholesale release of terrorists will brings waves of attacks in its wake,” the editor in chief of Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Amnon Dankner, wrote in a front-page opinion piece.
In fact, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned that Israel would regret its refusal to release Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who murdered an Israeli family in a particularly gruesome attack in 1979.
In future kidnappings, Nasrallah said, every effort would be made to keep the Israelis alive — making them more valuable as ransom.
Sharon, speaking at the state military ceremony for the dead soldiers, said Israel would resort to more extreme measures if terrorists made a practice of kidnapping Israelis.
Sharon called the decision to go through with the exchange “a Jewish decision,” adding that Israel would make every effort to bring home other missing Israelis — an apparent reference to Ron Arad, an Israel Air Force navigator who has been missing since he bailed out of his fighter jet over Lebanon in 1986. Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Thursday that any retaliation for the morning’s bus bombing would be muted — possibly in a nod to two U.S. envoys, John Wolf and David Satterfield, who were in the region to try to shore up the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.
Instead, Jerusalem mounted a media offensive, running graphic bombing photographs on the Foreign Ministry Web site and citing the attack as proof of the need for a West Bank security fence.
“This hideous attack is another indication that Palestinian terrorists have not missed a beat in their complete dedication for striking at Israelis in the heart of their own cities,” David Baker, of the Prime Minister’s Office, told JTA. “If anyone has not been convinced of the necessity of the security fence, they need only look at the pictures.”
In another grim twist of fate, the bombing interrupted an international Jerusalem symposium on the resurgence of international hostility toward Zionism and Jews, drawing an usually heated condemnation from the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, who was in attendance.
“It is a cruel irony that during the midst of a conference focused on ways of dealing with the problems of anti-Semitism, we are reminded of it in such a horrific manner,” Kurtzer said in his address.
At Hadassah hospital, the intensive-care unit was full, and it was one of those busy mornings where staff had been wondering how they would cope with all their patients. Then news of the bombing arrived, and then the victims.
The emergency staff — veterans of the many bombings that have plagued the city — went into full action, treating injured who arrived in blood-soaked stretchers.
The staffs at Hadassah and Shaarei Zedek, the other main hospital where the injured were sent, dealt mostly with blast and other internal injuries, broken limbs and cuts from metal pieces.
Reporters waited for photographs outside the emergency room and guards manned the hospital entrance as hospital workers tried to make order amid the chaos.
“We’ve seen too much,” said Irit Yagen, chief nurse, who was worried about recruiting extra staff for Sabbath shifts.
Patients piled in — one with broken limbs, another with a blasted lung.
In one bed, Shalom Zaken, 54, the bus driver, said his head hurt and he couldn’t hear. He had seen nothing unusual, he said.
Next to him, security guard Azouly was injured from lifting the wounded. His mother already was waiting in the hospital when he arrived.
Azouly said he wanted to know the status of the woman he pulled from the bus.
“I don’t know where she is. I want to know how she is doing and I hope to see her,” he said. “I hope she is alive.”