A suicide bus bombing in Haifa has shattered a relative period of calm in Israel and served as a stark reminder to a country bracing for the possible implications of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
With the United States stepping up military and diplomatic preparations for a possible strike against Iraq, much of Israel was focused this week on when a war might break out and whether it would affect Israel. But the focus changed abruptly Wednesday when at least 15 people were killed and more than 30 wounded in a suicide bombing on a Haifa bus.
Heftziba Shetreet, who was in a building opposite the bombing site, described the initial moments of confusion after she heard the explosion.
"In the first few seconds, we thought the war had started," she told Israel Radio. "We felt the explosion right above our heads. Within seconds we realized that there was a terrorist attack. We went outside and saw the bus, completely scorched, cloaked in smoke and the wounded strewn all over. Without thinking, we immediately ran to help them."
It was the first time terrorists had succeeded in carrying out a suicide bombing in Israel since Jan. 5, when 23 people were killed, some of them foreign workers, after two suicide bombers launched an attack near Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station. But Israeli security and political officials stressed that the feeling of quiet was only an illusion, and that Israel has thwarted numerous attempted bombings since the Tel Aviv attack.
Ya'acov Borovsky, the police chief of the Northern district, noted that there were some 50 alerts for possible terrorist attacks across Israel on Wednesday, but no specific warnings of an impending bombing in Haifa. Immediately following the bombing, police in other Northern communities went on alert for a possible attempt by terrorist groups to stage a string of attacks, Channel 2 television reported.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the bombing, saying it came in response to Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The attack was the first since the new Israeli government took office, but there was no immediate indication that the Cabinet would adopt a policy different from that of the previous government.
As he has done following previous acts of terror, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed the Palestinian Authority for the bombing, saying it had done nothing to stop such attacks.
Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party, a new member of the Security Cabinet, said Israel should not dramatically alter its response to terrorist attacks.
"We must continue to fight terrorism all the time," he told Army Radio. "There is no difference between an attempted attack -- and there are many of these -- and an attack that succeeds.
"We should not act with an intent for revenge," he continued. "We must keep constant pressure on the Palestinians until the moderates understand that they must put pressure on the extremists."
Political sources were quoted as saying that the relative quiet of recent weeks was the direct result of the Israeli army's ongoing anti-terrorist activities by in the West Bank and Gaza. The United States and Britain were among foreign nations condemning the attack.
President Bush "stands strongly with the people of Israel in fighting terrorism, and his message to terrorists is that their efforts will not be successful," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Earlier this week, both the United States and Britain had criticized Israel for harming Palestinian civilians during anti-terror operations in the Gaza Strip.
Following the attack, Army Radio quoted Palestinians as reporting that Israeli tanks entered Jenin. Israel Radio reported that troops had arrested a senior Hamas militant in Ramallah.
In Wednesday's attack, the Egged bus was about halfway through its route from the city's Central Bus Station to Haifa University, at the tip of Mt. Carmel, when the explosion took place. The powerful blast blew off the roof, leaving the frame of the bus as charred, twisted metal. Borovsky said the terrorist apparently boarded the bus several stops before detonating the bomb.
The bus driver, who was lightly wounded, said he noticed nothing suspicious prior to the explosion.
"I pulled up to the stop and opened the doors and suddenly there was an explosion," Marwan Darmouni recalled. "Then I didn't feel anything. When I opened my eyes, everything was destroyed, there was blood on my hands. I tried to get off the bus, and everyone was trying to phone the police and evacuate the wounded."
Darmouni, an Israeli Arab from the town of Shfaram, said that security guards assigned to public transportation usually get on his bus, but that he hadn't seen any on Wednesday.
"It's sad," Darmouni's father told Israel's Channel 10 television. The terrorists "don't differentiate between blood and blood."