Suicide bombers strike in Gaza

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Palestinian suicide bombers in the Gaza Strip drove a van filled with explosives into a busload of Israeli soldiers and later rammed an Army jeep with another car-bomb yesterday, killing seven Israelis.

One of the dead was an Israeli civilian. Nearly 45 soldiers and civilians were wounded in the two attacks, according to Israeli authorities.


The explosions targeted soldiers guarding Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip just as the Israeli Cabinet was to hear a liberal minister's proposal to begin evacuating isolated settlements there.

The attacks showed that Islamic extremists still are using their most potent weapon -- martyrdom-bound fanatics armed with powerful explosives -- in their campaign against the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


"What is happening today is a second Lebanon," complained Sheila Shorshon, who lives in Kfar Darom, the Jewish settlement near the bus blast.

The first explosion came when a blue van backed suddenly into a public bus filled mostly with soldiers as it neared the entrance of Kfar Darom in the center of the Gaza Strip. The explosion raked the side of the bus, showering passengers with shrapnel and glass.

Brig. Gen. Doron Almog, Israel's commander in Gaza, said six soldiers were killed; officials said 34 people were wounded.

Two hours later and seven miles away near the settlement of Netzarim, an explosives-laden car plowed into an army jeep escorting settlers' cars. One person was killed and two children, ages 2 and 4, were among the 11 wounded. It was unclear yesterday whether the fatality was a soldier or a civilian.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry, who was traveling with President Clinton in California, said three of the wounded were Americans, the Associated Press reported.

One of those wounded in the first attack was identified as Alisa M. Flatow of West Orange, N.J., a Brandeis University junior on leave to study at a Jerusalem yeshiva, the news agency said.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bus bombing yesterday. It said Mohammed Mahmoud al-Khatib, a 24-year-old resident of the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, set off the blast.

The radical wing of Hamas, another fundamentalist Muslim group, claimed responsibility for the attack on the Army jeep but did not name the attacker. Hamas said the two attacks were not coordinated.


Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin rushed to the Gaza Strip and said he would demand more action against Islamic militants from the Palestinian Authority, which took over control of much of the Gaza Strip last May.

Mr. Rabin said the fact that the attacks occurred within the Gaza Strip -- and not inside Israel -- shows the value of closing off Palestinian areas from Israel.

"This proves that they are having difficulty bringing the terror into Israel," he said. "It justifies what we have decided, to have a closure [and] full control of any movement of vehicles from the Gaza Strip."

The explosions highlighted what many now argue is a fatal flaw in the peace agreement. The accord returns some Israeli-captured land to the Palestinians but does not remove Jewish settlements from those areas.

Palestinians rankle at the continued presence of the settlers, who base claims to the land on the Bible. The Israeli government cannot remove the settlers without suffering politically, but chafes at the expense and difficulty of protecting them.

In the Gaza Strip, about 4,000 Jewish settlers live in 17 fenced communities among nearly 1 million Palestinians. Soldiers guard the settlements and the main roads leading to the areas.


Evacuation proposal

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a member of the liberal Meretz bloc of the government coalition, yesterday planned to ask the Cabinet to evacuate Netzarim. It has only 33 families, and is particularly isolated and difficult to guard, he argued.

Mr. Rabin, who is trying to hold together a diverse and slim ruling coalition, already has objected to the proposal. After news of yesterday's bombing reached the Israeli Cabinet, Mr. Rabin stopped Mr. Sarid from presenting his plan.

"It's becoming much more difficult to protect the lives of Israelis in these settlements," said another member of the liberal block, Education Minister Amnon Rubenstein. "We advocate that the most vulnerable of these settlements be evacuated."

"Such talk about evacuating Netzarim and Kfar Darom is making them a target for terrorism," responded Economics and Planning Minister Shimon Shetret, a member of Mr. Rabin's Labor Party. "It is unfortunate and totally mistaken."

Reaction to the bombings followed the pattern of each of five previous attacks on Israelis since last April, when suicide bombers began using powerful explosives at bus stations and public buses.


Members of the Israeli right-wing Likud opposition said the attacks prove the futility of negotiations, and called for an end to the peace process with the Palestinians. The Israeli left wing called for an acceleration of the talks.

Israeli settlers complained that the government is not protecting them. Palestinians said the incident proves the settlers should leave Gaza and the West Bank.

Arafat condemns bombings

Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the bombings as "terrorist operations," a term usually used only by Israel. He vowed to fight the Islamic fundamentalists.

"These people are the enemies of peace," he said.

The bus explosion occurred about noon. The lumbering red-and-white Israeli public buses are used for soldiers and civilians. Within the Gaza Strip, a crowded enclave on the Mediterranean Sea 40 miles south of Tel Aviv, the buses are escorted by army jeeps.


According to witnesses and Army Radio accounts, a blue van parked along the roadside suddenly accelerated in reverse as XTC the escort jeep passed, and rammed into the bus.

Israeli soldiers sealed off the area, preventing reporters from entering. According to Reuters, two television cameramen were beaten by soldiers at the scene. Newsmen from Reuters and ITN said soldiers seized their cameras, threw the equipment to the ground and fired shots at it.

Palestinians gathered at the home of Mr. al-Khatib in the Nuseirat camp to mark the death of the attacker, according to the Associated Press.

"The language of bullets is the only one that will guarantee the departure of the enemy from our territory," an Islamic Jihad member said, according to the news agency.