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Israel vows retribution for car bombing
Bomb blast in northern Israel ushers in new vow of retaliation

Jewish Telegraphic Agency
November 24, 2000

The remains of the bus that was alongside the car bomb. Most of the casualties were passengers on the bus.
JERUSALEM—With each new day, there is added reason to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spiraling out of control.

Hopes that the two sides may step back from the brink become increasingly dim as each new round of violence brings vows of retribution.

Such vows have repeatedly come from Palestinian sources, and this week they began to be sounded from Jerusalem as well.

For weeks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been adhering to what he called a "policy of restraint." But following a terror bombing of an Israeli school bus Monday in the Gaza Strip, Barak was promising Israeli retaliation "to ensure that the violence stops."

And on Wednesday, following a second terror attack-a car bombing in the northern Israeli town of Hadera-Barak was again promising to "settle accounts" with those responsible.

The premier also said the Palestinian Authority is "totally responsible for the attack" because it was releasing terrorists and "encouraging them, guiding their people, to carry out terror attacks."

He spoke after the car bombing killed at least two people and wounded at least 25 others.

The bombing, which took place in the crowded downtown shopping area in Hadera, came during evening rush hour Wednesday.

A witness told Israel Television that a bus emerging from the town's central station passed the bomb-rigged car.

The blast was so powerful that the bus slammed into a nearby store. Several stores in the vicinity caught fire, and the explosion could be heard from several blocks away.

Barak, who condemned the attack as a "barbaric act against innocent civilians," convened the Security Cabinet for urgent consultations.

He also repeated his call for the creation of a national unity government to deal with the ongoing crisis.

In the political establishment, there were growing calls in favor of such a move.

An estimated 120,000 people demonstrated in Zion Square Wednesady evening.

Eli Yishai, political leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, urged Likud leader Ariel Sharon to heed the call.

He also said Israel can respond forcefully to the Palestinians only if all political parties are part of the government.

But Sharon continued to oppose a unity government, instead decrying Barak and his policies at a right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.

"The problem is with the leadership and decision-makers, who have tired out. The battle against the rising terrorism has until now been waged hesitantly," Sharon said.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "is not a peace partner but a savage enemy," he continued, to rousing cries from the crowd.

Settler leaders organized Wednesday's demonstration before the car-bombing took place, wanting to protest the overall security situation.

The massive crowd filled Zion Square, spilling into surrounding streets and snarling traffic.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Hadera bombing, but earlier in the day the military wing of Hamas said in a statement it would bring death to every Israeli home.

The Palestinian Authority, which denied any part in the attack, lashed out at Barak's "false accusations" against the self-rule government.

The attack took place two days after terrorists bombed the Israeli school bus, killing two adults and wounding nine others, including five children.

Barak, who came under strong domestic pressure to abandon his policy of restraint, soon ordered the heaviest bombardment of the self-rule areas since the violence erupted.

Coming hours after the school bus attack, Israel's missile strikes on Gaza City, killing one Palestinian and wounding scores of others, although only few of them seriously.

The battle next turned to the diplomatic front, with Egypt's announcement Tuesday that it was recalling its ambassador to Israel in the wake of the attack on Gaza City.

The departure of Mohammed Basiouny left no Arab representatives remaining in the Jewish state.

In another sign of escalation, a senior Palestinian Authority official said Tuesday that Palestinian police can now fire on Israeli troops who shoot at Palestinian demonstrators.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the Palestinian Authority's general secretary, said the self-rule government made the decision after Israel "shot the peace process in the heart" with its missile strikes in Gaza City.

On Wednesday, Arafat's mainstream faction vowed to avenge those strikes, issuing a statement vowing to "burn the ground beneath the feet of the Israeli occupation."

That same day, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinian militia members near the Jewish settlement of Morag in Gaza.

Among the dead was a militia leader, Jamal Abdel Razek, whose death may provoke a new round of Palestinian retaliation.

The army said soldiers trying to arrest Razek opened fire when he tried to crash his car through an Israeli roadblock close to the settlement.

Palestinian officials said the soldiers shot without provocation.

Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security chief in Gaza, called the killings a "barbaric assassination."

Israel's army, which had been tracking Razek, said he was responsible for a number of shooting and bombing attacks on Israeli targets in Gaza.

Earlier this month, the army killed a Palestinian militia leader in the West Bank whom it held responsible for shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.

That killing triggered more Palestinian violence.

On Saturday, a Palestinian policeman infiltrated the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza, killing the soldier and seriously wounding two others before being shot dead by Israeli troops at the site.

The soldier killed in the attack, Staff Sgt. Baruch Snir Flum, 21, of Tel Aviv, was among the last Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon in May. He had four months left until his army discharge.

On Sunday, Barak told his Cabinet that he did not plan to retaliate for the attack.

But Monday's attack against civilians put new pressure on Barak to retaliate harshly against Palestinian violence.

Following the explosion, the words "This Is What We Get for Restraint" were spray-painted in Hebrew on the wreckage of the school bus. And Jewish demonstrators blocked the main entrance to Jerusalem, demanding that the army respond more forcefully to Palestinian violence.

Jewish settler leaders, who met with President Moshe Katsav on Monday to discuss the security situation, said the prime minister must let the army do what it takes "to win."

Monday's developments came just a few days after Arafat said he ordered Palestinian gunmen to stop firing at Israelis from Palestinian-ruled areas.

Arafat's call came after U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross met separately last week with Arafat and Israeli leaders.

Ross reportedly made some progress in getting the two sides to agree to talks aimed at not only reducing the violence, but also leading back to negotiations.

On Monday, Danny Yatom, Barak's security chief, rejected Arafat's public call last week to halt shooting at Israeli from Area A, which is under sole Palestinian control, as "cynical."

"That he told them not to carry out attacks in Area A, he basically gave them permission to attack in areas B and C," where Israel has overall security control.

Yatom said the Security Cabinet had approved a number of other measures, including economic actions, and that the government would also launch an information campaign to explain to the world that "this is an unacceptable situation" in which Arafat "expects to conduct some sort of dialogue with us, alongside shootings, incitement and terrorist attacks."

Some Israeli observers suggest that Arafat still considers violence the most effective means to attain his political goals.

There are also some who question whether Arafat really has the ability to stop the violence.

In addition to the renewed activities of Islamic militants-many of whom were released from Palestinian jails during the ongoing violence- members of Fatah have joined armed militias that may or may not respond to calls for a cease-fire.

The Palestinian Authority denied any involvement in Monday's bombing, and a senior Palestinian official was quoted as saying that the self-rule government would launch an inquiry into the attack.

But Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh later said there was a clear connection linking the attack to the Palestinian security establishment.

"This puts heavy responsibility, grave responsibility, on the Palestinian Authority," Sneh told reporters.

Claims of responsibility for the bombing came from three little-known groups: Palestinian Hezbollah, Al-Aksa Martyrs and Omar al-Mukhtar.

Israeli security officials did not rule out possible links between the groups and the more well-known fundamentalist militant groups, Islamic Jihad or Hamas.

The school bus had left the settlement of Kfar Darom early Monday. Students and teachers were en route to an elementary school in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza.

The Israeli army said it appeared that three assailants hid in the bushes near the road and detonated the explosive by remote control when the school bus approached.

The bus, which according to the army was heavily armored and under a military escort, was badly damaged by the explosion of a heavy mortar shell that was attached to a detonator.

The shell was surrounded with pieces of metal "to inflict as many injuries as possible," an army statement said.

The attack occurred on a road controlled by Israel. The surrounding area, indeed most of the Gaza Strip, is under Palestinian control.

The attackers fled into the self-rule area after detonating the explosion, according to Israeli authorities.

Witnesses said several pieces of shrapnel went clean through the bus, which held about 30 passengers.

Israeli military officials said the protective covering of the vehicle prevented additional casualties.

The two victims were teachers at the school: Miriam Amitai, 35, a mother of four; and Gavriel Biton, 34, a father of six. Both were residents of Kfar Darom.

Among the injured were three young siblings who had to have their arms or legs partially amputated, according to medical workers.

The blatant attack on a school bus filled with children has prompted some observers to suggest that the attackers were trying to kill off any chances that negotiations would be resumed any time soon.

In a possible sign of the premier's own emerging conclusion that there really is no Palestinian partner in the diplomatic process, Barak reportedly has renewed contacts with the nation's opposition parties to consider forming a unity government.

For the time-being, though, he has no takers.

Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon said he would not enter into a government with someone whom he claimed would divide Jerusalem and give back the Jordan Valley.

Sharon also accused Barak of holding secret negotiations with the Palestinians despite the violence-a charge Barak denied.

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission


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