Tel Aviv bus bomb kills five, injures 50

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEL AVIV, Israel - A Palestinian suicide bomber blew apart a bus in the heart of Tel Aviv yesterday, killing five people and prompting the Israeli army to besiege Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's presidential compound in Ramallah.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers backed by machine-gun fire rolled into the ruins of Arafat's headquarters shortly after nightfall, killing one man in the courtyard and wounding two of Arafat's bodyguards.

Israeli army commanders demanded over loudspeakers that Arafat turn over at least 20 wanted men believed to be inside the compound.

They include the head of the Palestinian Authority's General Intelligence Branch, Tafik Tirawi, and the commander of Arafat's personal guard, Mahmoud Damara - accused by Israel of aiding militant groups.

At least eight men surrendered to the army early this morning, but their identities could not immediately be learned.

In an emergency meeting, Israel's Cabinet decided against forcibly expelling Arafat from Ramallah to the Gaza Strip, but Israeli tanks were also reported to be in action in two areas of Gaza.

The army's actions began hours after the second suicide bombing in two days - one Wednesday in northern Israel killed a police officer. A six-week lull in violence had given both Israelis and Palestinians hope that two years of violence might be ending.

"It had been six weeks since an attack," one of Israel's chief rabbis, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, told state radio. "We thought that the wounds had been mended."

That belief abruptly ended when a Palestinian militant with a bomb hidden in a backpack boarded bus No. 4 on Allenby Street, near Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv - in front of a bookstore and across the street from the Great Synagogue.

Witnesses said the bus pulled away from the curb and stopped at a red light. Then the bomber, standing near the front, triggered the blast. The driver slumped over the wheel, sending the bus drifting about 100 feet down the street.

By the time the burned bus rolled to a stop, the driver and four passengers were dead, along with the bomber. More than 50 people were injured.

Police described the bomb as relatively small but said it was tightly packed with nuts and bolts that embedded themselves in storefront walls, shattered windows and fractured the skulls of two people.

Both the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Passengers said the front of the bus filled with smoke and the back doors jammed closed. People kicked and clawed each other to escape, climbing over seats covered with shards of glass to reach the windows.

"People were lying on the sidewalk and screaming," said Amir Chen, 45, who saw the blast from just feet away and described a scene of carnage. "I could see on the sidewalk a heart beating. I will never forget it."

Karmit Ovadia, 24, was standing in the back of the bus when the bomb exploded. "I looked to the front and all I saw was black smoke," she said. Several bolts bruised her back.

"All I wanted to do was get off the bus."

In the panic, Ovadia said, she was shoved to the ground, kicked and stepped on. Her sandals flew off and broken glass sliced her bare feet. She finally was able to reach a window.

"Someone from the outside pulled me through," she said while sitting outside a waiting room at Ichilov Hospital. "I sat on the sidewalk and cried." Another passer-by picked her up and sent her to the hospital in a taxi.

She emerged from the emergency room bandaged, the wounds on her feet bright red. Her blue denim handbag was bloodied. The shoulder strap had been ripped off. Around her neck was a large Star of David, which her mother, a part-time jeweler, had made earlier that morning.

"It didn't even get dirty," Ovadua smiled. "It's a miracle."

The bombing came just as Israelis were regaining confidence that the long season of suicide attacks had finally ended. People seemed especially upbeat because yesterday also marked the eve of Sukkot, the holiday celebrating the autumn harvest.

"In one word, it's bad," said Elad Zerfin, 21, who was standing outside his father's falafel stand across the street from the bus blast. A body part flew across three lanes of traffic and landed amid tables set out on the sidewalk. It was the second bombing near the shop in a year.

Zerfin's 57-year-old father, David, suffered chest pains after seeing yesterday's bombing and was taken by ambulance to a hospital. "With the unemployment, the slowdown and the tension, I find myself wondering about tomorrow," the younger Zerfin said. "I don't see a future."

Signs of hope had been visible the past few weeks.

Members of the Palestinian parliament had forced Arafat's Cabinet to resign, were demanding democratic reforms and appeared to be starting a debate about the merits of the conflict with Israel. Senior Palestinian officials and representatives from the United States and Europe were working on securing a cease-fire, though they failed to persuade militant factions to agree to one.

Israeli officials had attributed the recent drop in violence to the army's presence in Palestinian cities and the strict curfews imposed since June.

Israeli Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonisky, speaking to reporters before the bombing, said Israel was facing a significant threat of attacks. Authorities, he said, had received 74 specific attack warnings in the past week, including the names of bombers and the times and places of planned violence.

"The terror groups are very motivated, and we should rejoice every day that goes by without a terror attack," Aharonisky said.

Deputy Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, who toured the bombing scene yesterday, said, "We are not in a peace process. The person who carried out this attack, and person who brought him to Tel Aviv, were not thinking about peace."

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the attack against Israeli civilians, saying it "harmed the national interest of the Palestinian people."

"They provide the Zionist army of occupation with an excuse to continue their policy of curfews and destruction," it said.

But last night Palestinian officials called the army's attack on Arafat's compound a "new escalation," saying the army's occupation of most of the West Bank makes it impossible for Palestinian security forces to crack down on militant groups.

Beginning in April, Israeli troops kept Arafat under siege for 34 days until he agreed to jail five wanted men under U.S. and British supervision.

Palestinians criticized what was viewed as his capitulation to Israel, and it is unlikely that Arafat would strike such a deal again.

Israeli officials said they have not decided what to do if Arafat refuses their demands, but stressed that there are no immediate plans to force him into exile.

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