Tensions Building After Wave of Palestinian Terrorism
Two terrorist bombings in Jerusalem on Tuesday, following hard on the heels of the shooting of a 10-month-old Jewish girl in Hebron by Palestinian snipers on Monday evening, have increased calls by the Israeli public for strong action against terror just as the Arab League summit opens in Amman, Jordan.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has held emergency meetings with senior security commanders and his inner security cabinet after Jerusalem was rocked by two separate bombing attacks today that left one terrorist dead and more than 25 Israelis wounded. The bombings coincided with the start of the Arab League summit in Jordan and placed growing pressure on Sharon to retaliate, especially after Palestinian snipers took aim at and shot an Israeli infant in a stroller last night near a playground in the Jewish community in Hebron. In addition, a bomb exploded Monday evening near a felafel stand in Petah Tikva, without causing any injury. Sharon was elected last month on a promise to restore security to Israelis, but the government has been reluctant to respond forcefully during the pan-Arab summit.
The first blast today came at 7:40 AM as a stolen Mitsubishi packed with explosives was set off by remote control on a busy traffic circle in the Talpiot commercial district in southern Jerusalem. Up to seven people were injured, most lightly, including three on a passing Egged city bus. The vehicle was left a heap of mangled metal, burning car parts were scattered all over the street, and some flew into the entrance of a nearby mall. Children on their way to school were screaming and running into the mall for shelter, witnesses said.
The second blast came just five hours later, when a suicide bomber wearing a belt of explosives detonated himself alongside an Egged bus No. 8 at a main intersection near French Hill, in northern Jerusalem at about 1:00 PM. One person was killed, apparently the suicide attacker, and around 20 were wounded, with at least 12 people sent to hospital for treatment. The injured included the bus driver and a two-year-old passenger.
The injury total in the back-to-back explosions in Jerusalem today came to over 25, including several with serious wounds.
Some reports said passengers on the No.8 bus claimed that a man with a knapsack boarded the bus, got off when he aroused suspicions, and the bomb exploded seconds later. Others said he was simply standing at a bus stop, and waited for the bus to pull alongside before setting off the blast. The explosion shattered bus windows, inflicted burns and shrapnel wounds and left many in shock. A stunned eyewitness said he watched the man blow himself up and then saw his head severed from his body on the ground.
In a leaflet sent to news agencies, an unknown Palestinian group calling itself the "Popular Army Front" claimed responsibility for the blast. The earlier morning bombing was claimed by Islamic Jihad. Israeli security, however, suspect Hamas was involved in both attacks.
"We have a war here," said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, adding that the government had expected an escalation of violence during the Arab summit.
Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin, speaking before the second bombing, said Israel would retaliate, but refused to say what steps the government would take. "I can assure them (the Palestinians) that the response ... will be swift and will be coming," Gissin said.
On Monday evening, the Israeli baby girl was shot in the head in Hebron as she was sitting in a stroller pushed by her father, Yitzhak Pass, who was wounded in the leg. Pass, his wife and baby daughter had just gotten out of their van and entered the Avraham Avinu enclave. They were near the enclave's playground when the shots were fired.
Eyewitnesses and army commanders said it was carefully aimed and not a random spray of bullets. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres today also charged that the Palestinian gunman deliberately aimed his scope and rifle at the infant in the stroller. "All of Israel is shocked," he said.
After the shooting, the Israeli military told Palestinian civilians to leave the Abu Sneineh hillside neighborhood overlooking the Jewish enclaves of Hebron, from where the snipers had fired. Israeli troops then fired tank shells at Abu Sneineh. Thick black smoke rose from a building hit by an Israeli shell on a hilltop in the Palestinian neighborhood, source of almost daily gunfire at Israeli enclaves below.
Jewish settlers in Hebron demanded that the army retake Abu Sneineh. The parents of the victim, 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, said they would not bury the child until Abu Sneineh is back under Israeli control. Jewish law requires quick burial, but the parents said they obtained rabbinical approval for their decision.
Commenting in Amman late Monday, PLO chief Yasser Arafat made no reference to the killing of the girl, only denouncing Israel's shelling of Abu Sneineh. Seven Palestinians were reportedly hurt in the shelling.
Arafat was attending the summit of Arab leaders in Amman that commenced this morning. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II opened the gathering with speeches focusing on the themes of Arab unity and economic cooperation. Abdullah also had the Arab heads of state stand to recite a Muslim prayer in tribute to the hundreds of Palestinians who have died in the last six months of violence against Israel.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ratcheted up the anti-Israel rhetoric, saying his problem is not necessarily with the various Israeli governments in power, but with the Israeli public that elected Sharon. He charged that Israeli society was "more racist than the Nazis."
In his address, Arafat said he rejected terrorism, but pleaded with Arab states to financially assist the Palestinians to continue their struggle against Israel.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made an appearance at the summit and joined in the attack on what he called Israel's "collective punishment" of the Palestinians. He said that Arab nations have "every right to criticize Israel," but added, "these points could be made more effectively if more Israelis did not believe their existence was under threat."
Arab foreign ministers had already watered down a Syrian proposal to revive a full economic boycott of Israel, which was first imposed in 1950 to isolate the Jewish state. The draft only promises consideration of the embargo.
And at the United Nations on Monday, the Security Council missed its self-imposed deadline for adopting a resolution on an international observer force to "protect the Palestinians" before the start of the Amman conference. The Palestinian delegation dropped their call for UN observers to help end six months of violence and agreed instead to let the Security Council vote on a European proposal for unspecified "mechanisms" to protect Palestinian civilians. The US still has trouble with that measure, however, and more marathon negotiations are expected.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, the most common refrain heard today was that Sharon "was elected to provide security, not to continue with the policy of restraint." Settler leaders and right-of-center parties were calling for immediate action against the wave of terrorism, while officials close to Sharon advised waiting until after the Amman summit concludes later this week, and Israeli Arabs stage their annual "Land Day" protests on Friday.
National Religious Party Knesset Member Shaul Yahalom insisted, "Every day there will be another diplomatic reason (not to respond). The Prime Minister apparently does not understand that the crushing majority he got in the elections wants him to adopt a different policy to that of Ehud Barak."
Nationalist MK Benny Elon said Sharon had effective plans for fighting terror, but the "delay in carrying them out leaves me with a very bad feeling."
Trying to explain that delay, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said early Tuesday that they were exercising caution because Arafat's goal was to escalate violence during the Arab summit, in an effort to draw a harsh Israeli response with the hope of precipitating international intervention in the region.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.