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As Hopes Were Rising for Cease-fire, a Bomber Targets Central Jerusalem

March 22, 2002
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King George Street was filled with its usual afternoon rush-hour crowd of pedestrians stopping for a schwarma sandwich, buying fresh baguettes, wolfing down a plate of hummus or shopping for hats against the hard Jerusalem sun.

And then Eli saw him — an Arab man who had just alighted from one of the many buses that ply the city center. The man seemed a bit bewildered, turning from one side to the next, seemingly searching for his orientation.

This is a terrorist, thought Eli, 22, who like other Israelis has been besieged in recent months with news of suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israelis, and of others that were averted just in time.

Eli turned to look for a policeman, but he never had time to convey his warning.

At that moment, Mohammed Hashaika, also 22, from a West Bank village near Nablus, detonated a bomb that had been filled with nails and metal bits to maximize the damage.

“You just don’t have time in these kinds of situations,” Eli told Israel Radio shortly after the attack. “I just thank God that I’m relatively OK.”

Others were not so lucky. The bomb killed at least three people and wounded more than 100.

The attack came as Israeli officials were expressing optimism that U.S.-brokered peace talks might be able to bring about a cease-fire in the 18-month-old Palestinian intifada against Israel.

As with a bus bombing the previous day that killed seven Israelis, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government did not order an immediate military retaliation.

It did, however, cancel a round of Israeli-Palestinian truce talks that had been scheduled for Thursday evening.

Hashaika was sent on his mission by the Al-Aksa Brigades, a militia of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Israeli officials said they held Arafat responsible for the attack.

“Arafat is taking no action whatsoever, even the most minimal action” against terrorists, Sharon spokesman Ra’anan Gissin said.

Arafat condemned the bombing in unusually forceful terms, vowing to “put an end” to such attacks.

However, a spokesman for the brigades said Arafat had given no order to stop attacking Israelis.

In Washington, after months of hesitation, the U.S. State Department announced it was adding the Al-Aksa Brigades to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The brigades become the fourth Palestinian group on the list, joining Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said it was unclear to what extent the group acts with the approval of Fatah’s senior leadership.

However, given Fatah’s centrality to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, the brigades are the closest organization to Arafat to make the State Department’s list.

The designation, which will not become law until next week, makes it illegal to provide funds or material support to the group and requires banks to freeze any funds held in its name. Members of the group can also be denied visas to the United States.

The State Department also said it was moving forward with other steps to add the Al-Aksa Brigades to a parallel terrorist list in the White House. If the group is designated a terrorist organization by White House executive order, foreign banks would be asked to freeze the organization’s assets or risk having the bank’s U.S. assets frozen.

The brigades could be added to another list, the terrorist exclusion list, which strengthens the United States’ ability to exclude supporters of terrorism from the country or to deport them if they are found within U.S. borders, according to the State Department’s Reeker.

Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with Arafat by telephone, telling him, that “the time to act is now,” Reeker said.

President Bush said he is “disappointed” with Arafat.

“We’ve set some strong conditions” for him to fulfill, Bush said. “We expect Mr. Arafat to meet those conditions.”

Thursday’s attack came a day after Jerusalem police released statistics showing 50 terror attacks or attempted attacks in the capital in 2001, a 500 percent increase from the year before.

As during so many other times during the intifada, Jerusalem’s city center Thursday afternoon was a tangle of ambulances, emergency medical workers, bleeding victims, journalists and horrified onlookers.

Visiting the blast scene, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said Israel was “at war, and we will be at war for the foreseeable future. I am not willing to turn Jerusalem into a closed military base.”

Several hours after the bombing, life began returning to semi-normal.

Roads in the city center were reopened, a basketball game was broadcast on the radio and television stations resumed their regular programming.

Yet not everyone wanted to return so quickly to normality. Some 50 demonstrators gathered near the site of the attack, demanding harder military strikes against the Palestinians and protesting what they called the government’s inaction.

At the Ra’anana Junction north of Tel Aviv, some 100 people carried placards calling on Sharon to bring down the Palestinian Authority. A large poster depicted Osama bin Laden and Arafat as terrorist twins.

“We must act,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai said Thursday night. “We are in a war, and the Americans must understand that.”

One witness to the bombing, identified on the radio only as Israel, said the terrorist looked suspicious, but he did not have time to tell the authorities.

“I was very close to him,” Israel said. “I saw him walking, looking here and there, and I saw he looked suspicious. I wanted to call someone, but I didn’t have time. Then he blew up. I saw arms and legs flying all over the place.”

Rena Cohen, who works at a bank Rena Cohen, who works at a bank near the site of the attack, said: “We can’t take this anymore. I don’t know how we’re supposed to leave our homes in the morning.”

Wary of more attacks, police and soldiers are on high alert for the upcoming Passover holiday, with guards to be deployed in all major cities and in all bus stations considered vulnerable to attacks.

Yet the concentrations of police and security forces already on high alert in Jerusalem failed to stop Hashaika.

“It’s impossible to guard every sidewalk in Jerusalem,” the city’s police chief, Mickey Levy, said. “Unless there are specific warnings about specific sites in Jerusalem, police policy is not to tell Jerusalemites to change their way of life.”

It’s not clear what effect the bombing — as well as several shooting and bombing attacks on Israeli civilians Thursday in the West Bank that caused no injuries — will have on the fate of the U.S. peace effort.

U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni met separately with Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer on Thursday night.

“There cannot be a cease-fire that only Israel honors,” Ben-Eliezer said afterward.

Zinni had expressed optimism that this, his third mission to the region, was making progress toward a genuine cease-fire.

The United States also had dangled the prospect of a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney early next week to induce Arafat to combat Palestinian terror.

A State Department official said the Cheney-Arafat meeting was in doubt, given the two major terror attacks within 30 hours on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It’s safe to say we’re further away from such a meeting than when the vice president was in the region” earlier this week, the official said.

Late Thursday, Israeli television reported that Palestinian security services recently had arrested Hashaika at Israel’s insistence. Israel had presented evidence that Hashaika, a Palestinian Authority policeman, was preparing to carry out a suicide bombing inside Israel.

Pressed for goodwill gestures to ease the American mission, Israel agreed to a P.A. request to transfer Hashaika from a jail in Tulkarm to one in Ramallah, even easing its closure on the city to allow Hashaika’s entrance.

Palestinian officials soon released Hashaika, however, saying they feared for his safety when Israeli troops briefly invaded the city earlier this month. Hashaika then made his way the few miles to Jerusalem, Israeli television reported.

Despite Israeli and American pressure and the commitments imposed by two American cease-fire plans, the Palestinians’ top security official in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, said Thursday that the Palestinian Authority never would close down the various Palestinian forces nor arrest wanted terrorists, Israel Radio reported.

American Jewish groups and some legislators blamed Arafat personally for the bombing.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it condemned Arafat’s “embrace of terror,” arguing that the Palestinian leader had an “aversion to peace.”

“Arafat is solely responsible for the actions of these terrorists. There must be consequences for his role in the continuing Palestinian terrorism against Israelis,” AIPAC’s president, Tim Wuliger, and its executive director, Howard Kohr, said in a statement.

At a hastily convened news conference on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress joined with the Zionist Organization of America to denounce Arafat and his actions.

“It’s time to face the facts,” he said. “Terrorism and Arafat are one and the same.”

“There is no such thing as peace with this man,” she said.

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