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For Presidents Conference, Bombing Hits Close to Home

February 23, 2004
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Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon was describing the Palestinian Authority’s strategy of terrorism when a small commotion erupted in the corner of the room.

One of Ya’alon’s aides swiftly scribbled a note and passed it to the Israeli army chief of staff, who hardly skipped a beat in his Sunday-morning speech to a visiting delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

It was only several minutes later, after Ya’alon had finished his presentation, that he told the group a Palestinian suicide bomber had detonated himself aboard a bus barely 100 yards from the group’s hotel in downtown Jerusalem.

At least eight people were killed in the explosion and more than 60 were wounded. The attack took place right near the German Colony, an upscale neighborhood filled with trendy shops and beautiful homes.

The Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack, citing Israel’s construction of its West Bank security barrier as the primary grievance.

Discouraged from visiting the scene in such a large group, most members of the Conference of Presidents delegation proceeded with a planned tour of the fence. But the group’s leaders were whisked past Israeli security barricades to within feet of the bus.

There they saw firsthand the carnage that until now they had known only on television screens.

“When you see it on the news, you see it for a minute and you say, ‘Oh, that’s horrible,'” James Tisch, the conference’s chairman, told JTA. “When you see it up close, it hits home and registers much more powerfully. You understand that these were real people that were killed and injured.”

As members of Israel’s emergency response teams loaded the wounded onto stretchers and collected dismembered body parts and bits of raw flesh, six body bags were lined up on the ground next to the bus, out of sight of the cameras. A seventh victim died in the hospital, and an eighth was reported dead soon afterward.

The executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein, who has seen the aftermath of other suicide bombings, appeared visibly shaken. He said he had never been to the site of a bombing so soon after the attack.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s too hard to comprehend,” Hoenlein said. “There were body parts right there by our feet. You can’t bring the war on terror any closer to home.”

The explosion came one day before the International Court of Justice at The Hague was to begin a hearing on the legality of the security fence Israel is building to keep Palestinian terrorists from crossing into Israel.

“This is Arafat’s response to The Hague,” Hoenlein said. “If anything underlines the obscenity of The Hague trial, this is it. It’s Israel’s obligation to bring an end to this kind of outrage by building the fence.”

A statement from Arafat’s office said, “We will not stand idly by while Palestinian interests are harmed,” — apparently a reference to the damage the bombing could cause the Palestinian case at The Hague hearings.

The Palestinian Authority also condemned the bombing and vowed the catch those responsible. Similar pledges have gone unfulfilled in the past.

The bombing also took place on the heels of a visit to the region by three high-level U.S. diplomats, who came to Israel to discuss Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians.

Israeli sources said Sunday that Sharon had decided not to retaliate harshly against Palestinian targets after the bombing, Ha’aretz reported. But, the sources added, an anti-terror operation in Bethlehem, the bomber’s hometown, probably was inevitable in the near future.

In Jerusalem, as emergency workers combed through the shell of the bus and peeled away its windshield, a pack of journalists pressed against a hastily erected security barrier some 30 yards away, straining for a better view and forming small circles around Israeli public officials.

Nir Barakat, a member of the Jerusalem City Council, was on his way to visit a local school when the bus exploded across the street from him. He told an aide to call an ambulance and ran to aid the wounded.

“Life is more important than the quality of life,” Barakat said, referring to Palestinian arguments that the fence intended to thwart terrorists impedes Palestinian freedom of movement and makes it difficult for farmers to reach their fields.

“I want to protest,” he said. “The world has a double standard and needs to get its priorities straight. The first thing is to stop the killing.”

Israeli spokesmen said the attack only reinforced the need for the security fence — though they said they doubted the bombing would sway the international court, which most Israelis believe will rule against the Jewish state.

“It’s a crazy world,” Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski said in an interview. “The Hague is asking if the government of Israel has a right to build the security fence. This is a question?”

Four of the victims were identified by late Sunday as Lior Azulai, 18, a student at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school; Benayahu Yehonatan Zuckerman, 18, a student at the Experimental School in Jerusalem; Yuval Ozana, 32, of Jerusalem, and Staff Sgt. Netanel Havshush, 20, of Jerusalem.

“We knew about these attacks intellectually before, but now we have a little more emotional understanding,” Nadler said. “One thing that is really mind blowing is seeing this piece of flesh like uncooked meat lying on the ground, and knowing that it comes from a person.”

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