Will President Bush reward Palestinian terror?
That question echoed across Israel this week amid reports that Bush will deliver a speech in the coming days that could include a call for the creation of an interim Palestinian state.
The question had particular significance Tuesday, when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed at least 19 Israelis and wounded 52 in Jerusalem.
The blast from the bomb aboard a crowded bus shook surrounding neighborhoods. But it remained to be seen whether the reverberations would reach Washington, where final preparations were under way for Bush’s much- anticipated speech on Middle East policy.
Some political observers suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had Bush’s speech very much in mind when he took the unusual step of visiting the site of the suicide attack.
Standing near body bags lined up on the pavement, Sharon voiced opposition to declaring a Palestinian state any time soon.
“The horrible pictures we saw here today of these murderous acts by the Palestinians are stronger than any words,” he said. “What kind of Palestinian state do they intend to create? What are they talking about?”
In the past, Sharon expressed support for the creation of a Palestinian state. But he has said recently that the idea is premature as long as terrorist attacks continue.
Tuesday’s explosion occurred on a crowded bus during the morning rush hour. Most of the passengers were office workers and students on their way to school.
Many of the wounded were between the ages of 10 and 12, Army Radio reported.
Jerusalem Police Chief Mickey Levy said police had been on high alert in the capital since Monday, when they received a “hot” but nonspecific warning of an imminent attack. Further warnings were still in effect, Levy said. Sharon held a series of meetings to discuss the Israeli response.
Cabinet minister Dan Naveh, a member of Sharon’s Likud Party, said Tuesday that Israel should re-enter Palestinian areas and remain until security buffers are set up to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel.
He also called for expelling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from the region.
Legislator Yosef “Tommy” Lapid of the Shinui Party urged the government to refrain from responding to the attack for at least 24 hours, so international media would focus on the bombing, not the Israeli response.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres cut short a trip to Bulgaria to return to Israel.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the bus bombing. Speaking on CNN, P.A. official Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority condemned the killing of civilians, Israelis and Palestinians alike.
At the same time, he said the Palestinian Authority should not be held responsible for the attack.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack. Hamas claimed responsibility, saying the bomber came from a refugee camp near Nablus.
An Israeli intelligence officer, however, told Knesset lawmakers earlier Tuesday that the attack was carried out by Palestinian terrorists based in Bethlehem.
Israel Radio quoted security officials as saying it was possible the bomber was dispatched by a suspected Palestinian terrorist who was killed by Israeli snipers Monday.
The officials were quoted as saying that Walid Sbeh, a member of the Al-Aksa Brigade in the Bethlehem area, may have dispatched the bomber who carried out Tuesday’s attack. Israeli snipers killed Sbeh on Monday in a village near Bethlehem.
The blast occurred around 8 a.m. on Egged bus line 32A, which was traveling from Jerusalem’s southern neighborhood of Gilo to the city center.
Police said the bomb went off shortly after the bus left a stop in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Tsafafa. Police were investigating whether the terrorist got on the bus at that stop.
“I was on my way home. The bus had left the stop. There was a huge explosion, smoke, parts, body parts — it was horrific,” one witness, David, told Army Radio.
Ruth, a teacher at a nearby school, heard the explosion and ran to the site, searching for students.
“This is the hour they are coming to school, and this is exactly the stop before they get off,” she told Israel Radio.
Rescue crews arrived minutes after the blast and began evacuating the wounded to area hospitals.
In the initial hours before the identities of dead and wounded were released, local schools arranged for students to phone their parents and let them know they were safe.
At one school near the bombing site, the principal had teachers discuss what happened with the students and made a psychologist available to help traumatized students. He said he knew of at least two students wounded in the attack.
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