Sputtering efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled this week after Palestinians wearing Israeli army uniforms killed eight Israelis —including two babies — in a daring, well-executed ambush of a bulletproof civilian bus just outside the West Bank community of Immanuel.
The attack, the first in 26 days of relative quiet, came as no surprise to Israelis.
“It was the silence of a pressure cooker,” said Mordechai Kedar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. “There had been some terrorists caught on the way [to commit attacks], so it was only a superficial quiet.”
Ranaan Gissen, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that had Israeli troops not occupied seven of eight major Palestinian cities since last month, there would have been “10 or 12” terrorist attacks in the last three weeks.
The bus attack came shortly before high-level diplomatic talks were to begin here involving the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — the so-called Middle East Quartet. The talks were focused in part on ways to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.
“This heinous attack targeting women and children is the response of the Palestinians to this well-meant effort in New York,” said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon. “The perpetrators were [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat’s own Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade. Even if another organization committed it, the fact that his organization took credit for it shows where Arafat stands.”
In fact, four different Palestinian terrorist organizations issued statements claiming responsibility for the attack. Dore Gold, another Sharon adviser, said the methods used in the assault — bombing the vehicle and then shooting at the dazed occupants — were “reminiscent of techniques Hezbollah used in Lebanon” when Israeli troops were stationed there.
“There is growing coordination between Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups,” he said. “This attack just shows that these guys are very serious about their military techniques. What also characterizes this attack is that the terrorists waited for medical teams to come” and attacked them as well.
“It just underlines the fact that the terrorism Israel faces is directed first and foremost against our civilians,” Gold added.
Kedar noted that Hamas sent a detailed communiqué about the attack in which it took full credit, called for others taking credit to retract their claims, and boasted that it had carried out the December attack at the same site. Kedar said the message also promised to continue the attacks “until the Zionists will run away from our land when they are humiliated.”
He said that because of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities, “differences between [terrorist] factions have now been erased and they are all united in resistance and fighting. They differed before on goals, now their goal is to resist and to fight.”
About 12 hours after the bus attack, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian gunman in a ravine near the site of the ambush, which was virtually the same spot where another Israeli bus had been ambushed in December, killing 11 Israelis.
Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, just 10 miles south of Immanuel, said the difference between the two attacks was that the bus attacked in December was not bulletproof. Many of those killed were shot dead when their bus was riddled with bullets after having been stopped by a roadside bomb.
He said a roadside bomb believed activated by remote control stopped the bus Tuesday by puncturing its tires but did not pierce the armor-plated bus. After it stopped, three or four gunmen fired into the roof, which was not armor-plated, from the rocks above.
“The bullets penetrated the soft roof of the bus and they threw hand grenades” through a small opening just above the bulletproof windows, Nachman told The Jewish Week.
He said the passengers were trapped inside because the doors of the bus were damaged in the explosion.
“It was terrible,” Nachman said. “A real massacre.”
Rachel Gross, a high school student aboard the bus, told reporters: “I got down under the seats as fast as I could because the terrorists began firing bursts and throwing grenades. It went on it seemed like eternity.”
A grenade reportedly landed on a seat near her and did not explode.
One woman inside the bus used her cell phone to call her husband, Gal Shilon, 35, in Immanuel and ask him to help.
“He came with his car and as he approached the bus, he was shot to death,” Nachman said.
Shilon’s wife was injured along with one of her 8-month-old twin daughters, Galia. But the gunmen killed the other twin, Tiferet Sarah, and the woman’s mother, Zilpa Kashi, 67. Sixteen other people, including those in a car behind the bus, were injured. Several of the injured were relatives of those on the bus in the earlier attack and one reportedly was on both buses.
Among the injured was a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy who was rushed to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah. Dr. Yaakov Yahav, the hospital’s director, said the woman sustained injuries to her abdomen and that doctors were forced to perform a Caesarean section. The baby was born brain damaged and died a few hours later.
In the aftermath of the attack, Israel called off talks Wednesday with Palestinian officials that had only begun last week.
Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer went to the scene of the attack Wednesday.
“One thing I can promise you: We will catch them all,” he said of those responsible for the ambush. “We know who they are, and we will lay our hands on those who sent them as well.”
While there, he reportedly promised to allocate $250 million to improve the security of settlements.
As for the diplomatic flurry, although only the U.S. voiced support Tuesday for Israel’s position that Arafat must be replaced before the peace process can begin in earnest, Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the Europeans quietly support such a move. And he said there are indications that Egypt and Jordan agree.
Although UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at a press conference after Tuesday’s meeting that the UN still regarded Arafat as the Palestinian leader, Steinberg said: “I don’t think Annan sees the whole picture. He is just repeating the standard line.”
After the press conference, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said a U.S.-led task force would go to the region in two weeks to install new security mechanisms and that officials from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would participate. It was said that the CIA was developing security arrangements that could involve training Palestinians to curb violence and that the U.S. might be involved in an administrative role.
Although the U.S. later backed away from such commitments, Steinberg said the U.S. has expressed concern about a new security structure and that the only disagreement with Solana’s statement might be with the timing.
“There has also been talk of sending [Secretary of State Colin] Powell back here, but until there is something substantive to do, I don’t think he will be coming back,” he said.
White House officials are expected to meet with senior Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian representatives this week and Jordanian King Abdullah is expected to meet President George W. Bush Aug. 1. But Steinberg speculated that there would not be any real progress in peace efforts until after the Jewish holidays and the U.S. elections this fall.
Although Powell suggested on ABC’s “Nightline” this week that the U.S. would seriously consider allowing Arafat to have a ceremonial role as president, confining the real power to a prime minister, several observers said Arafat would never agree and Abu Mazen, an Arafat aide, said such a move is not provided for in the Palestinian constitution.
“You have to start with the assumption that Arafat has been a survivor of decades of inter-Arab politics,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “And you have to start with the assumption he does not want to give up real power; he does not want to become another ‘Queen Mum.’ Anyone who suggests otherwise is not looking at the real history of the man and the movement.”
This week’s diplomacy, according to another observer, was aimed mostly at finding some middle ground between the U.S. decision to see Arafat removed and the softer approach favored by its allies.
“The Europeans and Arabs are really poking around to see if the Bush administration really has a plan, or whether the [June 24] speech was just a way of turning away from the whole issue,” he said. “They are probing American intentions by offering their own plans.”
Those plans include a German scheme calling for Palestinian statehood in three years, international supervision of political reform and election of a prime minister, with Arafat relegated to mostly ceremonial duties.
Arab nations are pushing for something else: vague proposals for Palestinian “reform,” coupled with quick movement on at least provisional Palestinian statehood and a two or three-year timeline for resolving the most controversial issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
That was the message Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak delivered to Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer during meetings Alexandria on Monday, and it was the pitch the Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian foreign ministers were expected to offer to the administration in their Washington talks this week.
At Tuesday’s Quartet meeting, Powell pressed for acceptance of an American package that includes humanitarian and economic aid for the Palestinian people, but not the Palestinian Authority, coupled to international help for Palestinian political reform.
D.C. correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.