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Massive Jerusalem Bombing Stokes Fears and Raises Doubts

August 20, 2003
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A massive bus bombing in Jerusalem has frozen steps that Israel was scheduled to take in transferring several West Bank cities to Palestinian Authority control.

Tuesday evening’s suicide attack killed at least 18 people and wounded more than 100 on a street running from downtown Jerusalem toward the fervently Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood. Several children were among the dead.

Islamic Jihad and Hamas both claimed responsibility.

The massive bombing comes as Israeli officials were arguing over the wisdom of transferring cities to P.A. control as long as the Palestinian Authority says it is not strong enough to crack down on terrorist groups.

The bombing also could throw into question the future of the “road map” peace plan.

The explosion took place shortly after 9 p.m. on an extended “accordion” bus traveling along Shmuel Hanavi St. The bus was on its way from the Western Wall to the Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood when it exploded.

About 40 children — many of them on their way home from a nearby Bar Mitzvah — were among the wounded, Israel’s Army Radio reported.

Jerusalem Police Commander Micky Levy said the explosive charge was particularly large and caused exceptional damage.

The bomber acted as P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was meeting in Gaza with heads of Islamic organizations, trying to salvage the cease-fire that Palestinian terrorist groups declared in late June.

Moments later, Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attack, saying the bomber was from Hebron. The group had threatened to avenge Israel’s killing last week of its local leader in Hebron.

Later, however, Hamas also sought to claim responsibility for the blast.

“Every time Israel has made a gesture of peace to the Palestinians over the past 10 years the response has been the murder of our men, women and children. This has to stop,” said Daniel Seaman, head of Israel’s Government Press Office. “It must be realized that this is not an Arab-Israeli issue but rather an international campaign of terror which is ongoing from New York and Baghdad to Moscow and Jerusalem.”

The United States condemned the bombing and called on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle terrorist groups.

The Palestinian Authority also condemned the attack, and Information Minister Nabil Amer urged Israel to show restraint. He said the Palestinian Authority would do its utmost to bring those responsible to trial.

In the wake of the attack, political sources said Israel was at a delicate stage as it tried to decide how to proceed.

Israeli officials said Tuesday that all understandings reached with the Palestinians on the transfer of security control in West Bank cities were void. Israeli officials canceled talks scheduled for Tuesday night and Wednesday with Palestinian officials.

Before the bombing, the main sticking point holding up the transfer of West Bank cities was the issue of who would take responsibility for controlling fugitive terrorists there.

The Palestinian Authority says Israel has not made enough concessions to merit a crackdown on terrorist groups, the Palestinians’ central obligation under the road map.

Yet the scheduled transfer of Jericho and Kalkilya was delayed on Monday because the Palestinian Authority failed to guarantee that it would stop terrorists operating from those towns, even if it were in control.

Israel demanded that the P.A.’s security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, commit himself to ensuring that the fugitives would not resume terrorist activity. For his part, Dahlan expressed confidence Monday that differences would be resolved “within the next few days.”

Israel reportedly agreed that fugitives who are not considered senior terrorists could be absorbed into the P.A. security forces to prevent them from reverting back to terrorism.

Last week, Israel had said it planned to hand over Ramallah and Tulkarm as well, pending a Palestinian security plan for those areas.

Education Minister Limor Livnat wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday, demanding that the issue of Palestinian fugitives be brought before the government’s security Cabinet.

As recently as Sunday, however, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had spoken favorably of P.A. efforts to prevent terrorism. Mofaz said the transfer of power in the cities in question would be done “gradually, very carefully and under control.”

Tuesday night’s explosion brought to an end almost two months of relative quiet in Jerusalem. Tourists gradually had returned to the city, filling hotels, restaurants and pubs.

The Western Wall plaza was filled with visitors on Tuesday evening, and the bus that was attacked was filled with families returning from the wall.

Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid suggested that Tuesday’s attack would be a turning point in the conflict. Unless the Palestinian Authority took immediate action against the terrorist organizations, he said, the entire political process would collapse.

Housing Minister Effi Eitam said there was no point in expecting the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terror.

“They were given the chance and they did nothing about it,” he said.

Israel’s only choice, he said, was to wage an all-out anti-terror campaign of its own.

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