Jewish Journal


August 21, 2003

Jerusalem Bombing Shatters Cease-Fire


Yehuda Meshi-Zahav was checking the bodies lying on the pavement next to the bus destroyed in yet another suicide bombing, when he heard a baby crying.

Meshi-Zahav, the head of ZAKA -- the ultra-Orthodox organization that collects victims' body parts after terrorist attacks -- found the 1-month-old boy and made sure that he was taken to a hospital for treatment. The baby turned out to be OK, and his parents -- both of them lying wounded in the hospital -- were found.

But the fact that so many children were killed or wounded in Tuesday's bombing in Jerusalem -- which killed at least 20 and wounded more than 100 -- has made the tragedy even more painful for a nation already reeling from dozens of suicide bombings in the 3-year-old Palestinian intifada.

Apparently dressed as an Orthodox Jew, the terrorist shoved his way among the many passengers -- mostly ultra-Orthodox families returning from the Western Wall -- to the center of the elongated bus, where he detonated the bomb he was carrying.

Five of the dead were American citizens, according to The Associated Press.

The bombing came days after Israel had decided to relax its demand for a Palestinian Authority crackdown on terrorist groups, announcing that it would turn over four more West Bank cities to P.A. control.

The bombing seemed likely to intensify criticism of the government from the Israeli right, which had been critical of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to pull the army back from West Bank cities even without serious Palestinian action against terror groups.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israel froze security talks and its planned withdrawal. However, Israeli officials said Wednesday that in the long run they still believed the withdrawal -- and other parts of the "road map" peace plan -- should proceed.

Israel briefly considered expelling P.A. President Yasser Arafat, who they consider an instigator of violence, but decided against it.

Israel also reimposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rolling back steps that had eased movement for Palestinian civilians as a way to discourage support for terrorism.

Amid Israeli and American demands for serious moves against terror, P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas suspended contacts with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Abbas, who vehemently condemned the bombing, reportedly ordered P.A. security services to arrest those responsible.

Officials told the Jerusalem Post that Israel expected to see some P.A. anti-terror moves already on Wednesday.

Israel is expected to intensify its hunt for terrorists if P.A. forces do not take action, but a major military operation like last year's two major West Bank offensives is not being considered, Israeli officials said.

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

Jerusalem Police Commander Mickey Levy said the bomb was particularly powerful and caused exceptional damage.

The bomber acted as 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, saying it was revenge for the killing of a Hamas activist several months ago.

"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.

A senior U.S. official, however, said he did not think the attack would jeopardize the road map, according to The Associated Press.

The P.A.'s information minister, Nabil Amer, urged Israel to show restraint.

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.

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.

Eighteen of the 20 dead had been identified by Wednesday. Names released included Mordechai Reinitz, 49, and his son Issachar, 9, of Jerusalem; Goldie Taubenfeld, 43, and her son Shmuel, 3, from New Square, N.Y.; Ya'akov Binder, 50, from Jerusalem; Rabbi Eliezer Weisfish, 42, from Jerusalem; Menachem Liebel, 24, from Jerusalem; Shmuel Zargari, 3 months, from Jerusalem; Lilach Kardi, 22, who was nine months pregnant, from Jerusalem; and Tehilla Nathanson, 3, from Monsey, N.Y.

Other names were withheld at the families' request, Israeli media reported.

Justice Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid suggested that the attack would prove to be a turning point in the conflict. Unless the Palestinian Authority took immediate action against terrorist groups, he said, the entire political process would collapse.

Israeli 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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