JERUSALEM, Feb. 14 (JTA) The Palestinians appear determined to guarantee that Ariel Sharon does not enjoy a honeymoon.
Just as Israeli security officials predicted, Palestinian violence has surged since Sharon’s victory in prime ministerial elections last week.
On Wednesday, at least eight Israelis were killed and 20 wounded when a Palestinian driver plowed a bus into a crowded bus stop south of Tel Aviv, the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel in four years.
Seven soldiers were among the dead.
An anonymous caller to Israel Radio’s Arabic service said the military wing of Hamas carried out the attack.
The driver was wounded during a police chase and apprehended some 20 miles south of the scene of the assault, which took place outside the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.
The attack came a day after Israel assassinated a Palestinian security official in a pinpoint helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip.
Missiles destroyed the car in which Massoud Ayad, 54, was traveling on Tuesday. A member of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Force 17 bodyguard unit, Ayad had been recruited by Hezbollah in Lebanon to carry out attacks against Israel from inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli officials said.
On Wednesday, President Bush called for an end to the escalating violence. Bush said he called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the Palestinian terror attack.
“As I told the prime minister, the tragic cycle of violent action and reaction between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly the escalation this week, needs to stop,” Bush said.
Barak called Wednesday’s deadly hit-and-run attack an “abominable crime” and tightened a blockade of Palestinian-ruled areas.
He also suspended VIP permits that enable senior Palestinian officials to travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip through Israel.
Sharon said through a spokesman that the attack proved terrorists do not differentiate between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and “the heart of Israel.”
Arafat dismissed the incident as a “road accident.”
Police said the driver of the bus was a 35-year-old Palestinian father of three who had Israeli security clearances and had worked for the Egged bus company for the past five years ferrying Palestinians to jobs in Israel.
Witnesses to the attack said the bus stop was packed with soldiers and civilians waiting for lifts when the bus driven by the Palestinian careened into the stop shortly before 8 a.m. The bus then sped south on the main highway toward Gaza.
Ro’i, a soldier who travels from the stop every day and arrived shortly after the attack, said, “People didn’t know what had happened, there were heads with no bodies. It was horrific.”
The driver’s relatives said he was not affiliated with any Islamic group. His brother said his desperate economic situation due to the Israeli closure, or the Israeli “aggression” against Palestinians, may have driven him to his act.
Israeli security officials said the driver had his clearance renewed just two weeks ago.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Israel’s security establishment would have to review the screening process for granting Palestinians entry permits into Israel.
Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the attack. The Palestinian Authority official in charge of justice, Freih Abu Medein, said the attack was a result of what he called Israel’s use of excessive force against the Palestinians.
In another development Wednesday, Palestinian officials claimed Israeli security forces killed a West Bank Fatah leader in an ambush near Nablus. Iyaad Abu Harb was reportedly close to another Fatah leader, Thabet Thabet, who was assassinated by Israeli security forces in December.
The European Union this week criticized Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinians it accuses of attacking Israeli targets.
Sneh said Ayad, the target of Tuesday’s helicopter strike, had been involved in arms and drug smuggling in Lebanon, where he was recruited by the Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
An Israel Defense Force spokesman said Ayad headed a terrorist cell whose activities included recent mortar attacks on the Jewish settlement of Netzarim and plans to kidnap Israelis.
Israel recently arrested Ayad’s son, Nasser, who allegedly was a member of his father’s cell.
“It is a clear message to anyone who is planning to attack Israelis that they will not be able to do so with impunity, and that the armed forces will find them and settle accounts with them,” Barak said in a statement praising the assassination.
Tuesday’s operation came amid a marked surge in Palestinian violence in recent days, which Israeli security officials say is a response to Sharon’s election.
In other violence Tuesday, Palestinians claimed a 13-year-old boy was shot in the chest and killed by Israeli fire near the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip. The IDF flatly denied involvement in the incident, saying Israeli troops were not involved in any gunfighting in the area.
Israel’s Army Radio reported that Palestinians fired anti-tank missiles at IDF positions in the Gaza Strip for a second straight day. There were no Israeli injuries.
There were additional shooting incidents in the West Bank, and Jerusalem’s southern neighborhood of Gilo again came under fire from an adjacent Palestinian town. There were no reports of injuries.
On Sunday, an Israeli driver on a main road linking Jerusalem to the Etzion Bloc of West Bank settlements was killed when he was shot in the head by gunmen in Beit Jalla, a Palestinian town next to Bethlehem. Israeli ambulance workers who came to the man’s aid also came under fire.
The Israeli army on Tuesday set up portable bomb shelters in the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, which Palestinians have bombarded daily during the recent unrest.
Israeli security officials are divided as to the degree of responsibility the Palestinian Authority bears for the surge in attacks in recent days, which may be intended to test Sharon’s declaration that he will not negotiate under fire.
Arafat may not have given direct orders, Israeli officials say, but he shows by doing nothing to urge restraint on his forces that he condones the attacks.