Bombing Follows Thwarted Attacks

A suicide bus bombing in Haifa has shattered a relative
period of calm in Israel and served as a stark reminder to a country bracing
for the possible implications of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

With the United States stepping up military and diplomatic preparations
for a possible strike against Iraq, much of Israel was focused this week on
when a war might break out and whether it would affect Israel. But the focus
changed abruptly Wednesday when at least 15 people were killed and more than 30
wounded in a suicide bombing on a Haifa bus.

Heftziba Shetreet, who was in a building opposite the
bombing site, described the initial moments of confusion after she heard the

“In the first few seconds, we thought the war had started,”
she told Israel Radio. “We felt the explosion right above our heads. Within
seconds we realized that there was a terrorist attack. We went outside and saw
the bus, completely scorched, cloaked in smoke and the wounded strewn all over.
Without thinking, we immediately ran to help them.” 

It was the first time terrorists had succeeded in carrying
out a suicide bombing in Israel since Jan. 5, when 23 people were killed, some
of them foreign workers, after two suicide bombers launched an attack near Tel
Aviv’s old Central Bus Station. But Israeli security and political officials
stressed that the feeling of quiet was only an illusion, and that Israel has
thwarted numerous attempted bombings since the Tel Aviv attack.

Ya’acov Borovsky, the police chief of the Northern district,
noted that there were some 50 alerts for possible terrorist attacks across Israel
on Wednesday, but no specific warnings of an impending bombing in Haifa.
Immediately following the bombing, police in other Northern communities went on
alert for a possible attempt by terrorist groups to stage a string of attacks,
Channel 2 television reported. 

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the
attack. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the bombing, saying it came in
response to Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The
attack was the first since the new Israeli government took office, but there
was no immediate indication that the Cabinet would adopt a policy different
from that of the previous government.

As he has done following previous acts of terror, Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon blamed the Palestinian Authority for the bombing, saying
it had done nothing to stop such attacks.

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party, a new
member of the Security Cabinet, said Israel should not dramatically alter its
response to terrorist attacks. 

“We must continue to fight terrorism all the time,” he told
Army Radio. “There is no difference between an attempted attack — and there are
many of these — and an attack that succeeds.

“We should not act with an intent for revenge,” he
continued. “We must keep constant pressure on the Palestinians until the
moderates understand that they must put pressure on the extremists.”

Political sources were quoted as saying that the relative
quiet of recent weeks was the direct result of the Israeli army’s ongoing
anti-terrorist activities by in the West Bank and Gaza. The United States and
Britain were among foreign nations condemning the attack.

President Bush “stands strongly with the people of Israel in
fighting terrorism, and his message to terrorists is that their efforts will
not be successful,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Earlier this week, both the United States and Britain had
criticized Israel for harming Palestinian civilians during anti-terror
operations in the Gaza Strip.

Following the attack, Army Radio quoted Palestinians as
reporting that Israeli tanks entered Jenin. Israel Radio reported that troops
had arrested a senior Hamas militant in Ramallah.

In Wednesday’s attack, the Egged bus was about halfway
through its route from the city’s Central Bus Station to Haifa University, at
the tip of Mt. Carmel, when the explosion took place. The powerful blast blew
off the roof, leaving the frame of the bus as charred, twisted metal. Borovsky
said the terrorist apparently boarded the bus several stops before detonating
the bomb.

The bus driver, who was lightly wounded, said he noticed
nothing suspicious prior to the explosion. 

“I pulled up to the stop and opened the doors and suddenly
there was an explosion,” Marwan Darmouni recalled. “Then I didn’t feel
anything. When I opened my eyes, everything was destroyed, there was blood on
my hands. I tried to get off the bus, and everyone was trying to phone the police
and evacuate the wounded.” 

Darmouni, an Israeli Arab from the town of Shfaram, said
that security guards assigned to public transportation usually get on his bus,
but that he hadn’t seen any on Wednesday.

“It’s sad,” Darmouni’s father told Israel’s Channel 10
television. The terrorists “don’t differentiate between blood and blood.”