Peace process to go on despite blast, Israel says


TEL AVIV -- The blast from a suicide bomber ripped open a commuter bus yesterday, killing five elderly Israelis and the bomber and striking again at the heart of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

In anonymous calls to news agencies, the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas took responsibility for the bombing, which also injured 33 persons, three critically.

The Israeli government responded with determination not to give the suicide bomber the halt to the peace process that he sought. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said negotiations to gradually withdraw Israeli forces from the West Bank will resume after the funerals of the victims.

And in a measure of the change in the past two years, Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat condemned the bombing. The man who once led attacks on Israel adopted the Israelis' language by calling yesterday's attack "terrorism" and offered condolences to the victims' families.

Six similar suicide bombings on Israeli buses and at bus stops in the 12 months before April had killed 66 persons and nearly brought the talks on the Israeli pullback from Palestinian areas to a halt. But after three months of relative quiet -- credited in part to crackdowns by Mr. Arafat -- the momentum of the talks had returned.

Negotiators had set today as a target date for agreement on withdrawal plans. Israel has said that its troops will leave the major cities in the West Bank by year's end, allowing Palestinian elections for a quasi-self government.

"We are determined to negotiate with those who don't perpetrate attacks, who don't want attacks," Mr. Rabin said.

The bomb went off about 8:30 a.m. as the Israeli commuter bus passed the towering skyscrapers of Israel's Diamond Exchange district in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

"There was a tremendous explosion, sparks all over the place," said Rachel Alaluf, 28, a lawyer sitting toward the back of the bus.

"I dragged myself to the back door. It was broken, but I couldn't open it. There was a big hole in the side of the bus, and somebody grabbed me and helped me out," she said, her face badly battered, as she awaited surgery at Ichilov Hospital.

"I'm lucky to be alive," she said.

In the hospital's tense waiting room, Yael Noiman, 25, waited for word of Ms. Alaluf.

"I could never believe that one of my friends would be in this bus," she said. "This terrorism is always far from you. Then you realize how close it is."

But she rejected calls to end the talks with the Palestinians. "This peace process is the only solution," she said. A relative of another man wounded in the blast agreed. "Only the peace process will solve the problem," said the man, who would not give his name.

But at the scene of the bombing, hundreds of Israelis were shouting a different message. Protesters held signs demanding an end to the peace negotiations. When Mr. Rabin arrived to visit the scene, scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators who lunged for his car.

"Everyone hates the government," said one of those shouting, Rachel Eli-Tsour, 40. "Rabin, Peres, all of them are giving the Arabs an appetite. They are giving them a finger and the Arabs want the whole hand."

Israelis protest

The protests raged around the blue-and-white bus even as bodies were still inside. Police moved carefully for fear of a second bomb.

Reports yesterday evening said the five Jewish victims included four women in their 60s and a man, 75. A body of a man in his 20s to 30s was believed by police to be that of the bomber. It was decapitated.

Arieh Oren, the husband of 60-year-old Zehava Oren, who was killed in the blast, said his wife had been on her way to visit friends.

"Let's hope she will be the last casualty," he said in an interview on Israeli television. "There should be peace already."

The attack recalled a bus bombing that killed 22 in October on Dizengoff Street in the heart of Tel Aviv's shopping district. But this bomb was less powerful. Police later said it was made of about six pounds of explosives packed in a pipe. The blast occurred on a wide boulevard with few pedestrians nearby.

No-confidence motion

The bombing prompted Israeli opposition parties to put forward a no-confidence motion in the parliament, or Knesset, yesterday evening. The motion was defeated, 61-53, after a rancorous debate that included calls for revenge and castigation of the government.

"It is inconceivable there will be no punishment for spilling Jewish blood," said Rabbi Avraham Shapira, a Knesset member.

Rafael Eitan, a right-wing Knesset member, rejected recent comments from Mr. Rabin suggesting that those who call all Palestinians terrorists are guilty of racist stereotypes. "All Arabs are the same. All of them support terror, are happy with terror," said Mr. Eitan.

The Israeli government ordered that Palestinians be temporarily barred from coming into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that stopping the peace negotiations would be a victory for the bombers.

"Whoever proposes stopping the negotiations today suggests giving a prize to the crime's perpetrators," he said in the Knesset. "We shall not yield and not be terrified."

The Palestinian's chief negotiator, Ahmed Korei, said the talks probably will resume outside of the Middle East to escape "blackmail and pressures." Right-wing Israeli demonstrators have stalked the talks with noisy protests, often clashing with Israeli police.

A statement released yesterday by Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement vowed to "fight this group of mercenaries . . . as part of our national task." Mr. Arafat's autonomy government has arrested hundreds of alleged members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the chief radical groups opposed to negotiations with Israel. Some have been tried in late-night military courts without lawyers and imprisoned.

The recent lull in bombings had been seen as an indication that the extremist Islamic groups were losing support among Palestinians who had suffered under the closure and economic crackdowns that followed each bombing.

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