JERUSALEM - A Palestinian suicide bomber killed eight people yesterday aboard a crowded commuter bus in Jerusalem, the day before the International Court of Justice in The Hague is to begin hearings about Israel's construction of a West Bank barrier that Israel says is intended to prevent similar attacks.
The blast brought morning rush hour to a sudden halt, replacing the blare of car horns with the wail of sirens as ambulances rushed to tend to the dead and the nearly 60 people injured.
Officials said two 18-year-old high school students were among the dead and that 11 teen-agers were wounded. Textbooks spattered with blood lay amid charred debris.
The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said the bombing was carried out in retaliation for the West Bank barrier - a "Nazi wall which we won't stop attacking" - and for an army raid in Gaza this month that killed 15 Palestinians.
Members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were attending a conference at a hotel around the corner and heard the explosion while listening to a speech by the Israeli army's chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Yaalon. Many of them ran to the scene, where bodies lay on the asphalt next to the ruined bus.
"Today we have suffered another brutal and inhumane attack on our people and on our way of life," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. "More funerals. More suffering."
Many hurt by the blast and others who saw it pointed to the bombing as an argument in favor of the West Bank barrier. At the request of the United Nations, the world court is expected to issue an advisory opinion on the legality of the barrier, a step that could lead to recommendations for Security Council sanctions against Israel.
Israel is boycotting the hearing but has submitted written arguments contending that the court lacks jurisdiction in the matter and should not be drawn into a political issue.
Palestinians argue that in building the barrier, Israel has illegally confiscated large amounts of Palestinian land and cut off thousands of Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank. Israeli leaders call the barrier a temporary security measure made necessary by the Palestinian Authority's unwillingness or inability to rein in militant groups.
"If we had a fence, this wouldn't happen every week," said Rubin Paul, a 34-year-old paramedic who was among the first to arrive at the scene of the attack. He said he saw "the usual things - broken bodies, blood, people crying for help. For many, there was nothing we could do for them.
"No matter how inhumane we may be, what the Palestinians do to us is worse," he said. "We are building a fence to defend ourselves against attacks like this. Then we can start thinking about peace."
The bomb exploded at 8:30 a.m. as the bus left a stop at the northern end of Emek Rafaim Street headed downtown. Witnesses said a security guard had gotten off the bus three stops before the bomber boarded.
Police said the man detonated the explosive in the center of the bus, where many people were standing. Passengers were showered with metal fragments, and the blast blew out all the windows.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia condemned the attack in a statement and called for "an immediate halt to these actions." He said such attacks play into Israel's hands by helping it justify the West Bank barrier.
The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades identified the bomber as Mohammed Zool, 23, from the Bethlehem area.
Before yesterday's attack, the most recent suicide bombing in Israel had occurred Jan. 29, when a Palestinian militant blew up a bus near the residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, killing 11 people. A Jewish group whose members collect human remains at blast scenes paid to send the skeleton of the bus to be displayed at The Hague.
The display is part of the battle for public opinion being waged there. More than 900 Israelis are to march there today, each carrying a photograph of an Israeli bomb victim. Palestinians are building a mockup of the West Bank barrier.
The world court's decision, expected in three to six months, is not legally binding, but experts in international law say a ruling against Israel could have a significant impact. The United States and members of the European Union have objected to the court's involvement, saying it should not interfere in what they term a political issue.