JERUSALEM, Jan. 29 (JTA) — “How will I find anyone alive?” the 21-year-old
security guard asked as he broke down the door and climbed onto the charred
ruins of bus no. 19, stepping over body parts and choking on the smell of
Then Nir Azouly spotted a young woman with dark curly hair slumped in her
seat, her face and eyes drenched in blood. She was breathing, and he moved
aside the body at her feet to pick her up and carry her off the bus.
Azouly kept going in after that, pulling out five people — including a teenage
boy stuck between seats — from the tangled carnage of the bus that had been
full of morning commuters.
At least 10 people were killed and dozens were wounded in Thursday
morning’s suicide bombing in Rehavia, a quaint residential neighborhood of
the capital. The bomber left a note calling the attack revenge for Israel’s killing
of five terrorists and three bystanders in a Gaza Strip raid the day before.
“There was a huge fireball and the bus went up in flames,” eyewitness
Meshulam Perlman, a florist, told reporters. The blast scattered debris and
body parts as far as the prime minister’s official residence, though Ariel
Sharon was at his Negev Desert ranch at the time.
The Al-Aksa Brigade, part of the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement, claimed
responsibility for the attack. The United States, United Nations and European
Union all condemned the attack.
Terrorists “have once again stuck a blow against the aspirations of the
Palestinian people,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
The attack came a day after Israel killed eight Palestinians — five members of
Islamic Jihad and three bystanders — in gun battles in the Gaza Strip.
Thursday’s attack also clouded a landmark prisoner exchange between Israel
and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, brokered by Germany.
Azouly and another security guard were the first ones on the bus moments
after it exploded on a street lined with cafes and flower shops.
“I saw a lot in the army, but what I saw today there are no words for,” said
Azouly, who was released from a paratrooper unit just over two months ago.
He is a security guard on Jerusalem’s city buses and had been traveling on a
no. 19 bus in the opposite direction when he heard the thunderous rip of the
other bus exploding.
Azouly jumped off and ran the 10 yards to the bombed-out bus.
Identifying the bodies has been a slow process, said Tal Malovec,
spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, because the bodies are in such
bad condition. She said the blast was especially powerful.
“I mostly saw bodies in pieces. It was hard to identify what I was seeing,”
Azouly said. “The bus was full of smoke. There was a stench of bodies and
Among the passengers was Victor Chaim. He had just stepped onto the bus at
the previous stop and was looking for a seat when the explosion occurred.
Chaim was hurled backward and injured both his legs lightly. Someone pulled
him out of the bus, dragging him by his jacket.
“It was chaos. The people in front of me were not moving,” he said, “and the
silence after the explosion was incredible.”
Chaim, 41, who immigrated from France a year ago, said the bombing would
not shake his determination to stay.
“I want to stay in Israel. This is my life here, in this land,” Chaim said, speaking
from his bed at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital.
As if timed to ratchet up regional tensions, the bombing came just as Israeli
forensic scientists were in Cologne confirming that three bodies recovered
from Lebanon were soldiers killed in a border ambush in October 2000. Also
repatriated was an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was
abducted by Hezbollah shortly afterward.
The forensic team’s findings gave the green light for Israel to free some 435
Arab security prisoners. Many Palestinians who gathered to meet their
liberated kinsmen in the West Bank carried yellow Hezbollah flags, a mark of
the prestige the swap bestowed on the Lebanese group.
Freed Lebanese prisoners received a hero’s welcome in a ceremony in Beirut.
Tannenbaum and the bodies of the dead soldiers arrived back in Israel on
Thursday evening. The coffins of the soldiers, draped in Israeli flags, were on
display in a hangar at the base, where several hundred people gathered for a
Tannenbaum will be questioned by intelligence officials about how he ended
up in Hezbollah hands, Ha’aretz reported. After his arrival, he spent time with
his family and then was taken for a medical examination.
Many Israelis worried that the swap would encourage terrorist groups to
kidnap more Israelis and hold them for ransom.
“We will grind our teeth at the almost unbearably heavy price we are paying for
captives both alive and dead, and we will also wilt with worry that the
wholesale release of terrorists will brings waves of attacks in its wake,” the
editor in chief of Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Amnon Dankner, wrote in a
front-page opinion piece.
In fact, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned that Israel would
regret its refusal to release Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who murdered an Israeli
family in a particularly gruesome attack in 1979.
In future kidnappings, Nasrallah said, every effort would be made to keep the
Israelis alive — making them more valuable as ransom.
Sharon, speaking at the state military ceremony for the dead soldiers, said
Israel would resort to more extreme measures if terrorists made a practice of
Sharon called the decision to go through with the exchange “a Jewish
decision,” adding that Israel would make every effort to bring home other
missing Israelis — an apparent reference to Ron Arad, an Israel Air Force
navigator who has been missing since he bailed out of his fighter jet over
Lebanon in 1986.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Thursday that any
retaliation for the morning’s bus bombing would be muted — possibly in a nod
to two U.S. envoys, John Wolf and David Satterfield, who were in the region to
try to shore up the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.
Instead, Jerusalem mounted a media offensive, running graphic bombing
photographs on the Foreign Ministry Web site and citing the attack as proof of
the need for a West Bank security fence.
“This hideous attack is another indication that Palestinian terrorists have not
missed a beat in their complete dedication for striking at Israelis in the heart of
their own cities,” David Baker, of the Prime Minister’s Office, told JTA. “If anyone
has not been convinced of the necessity of the security fence, they need only
look at the pictures.”
In another grim twist of fate, the bombing interrupted an international
Jerusalem symposium on the resurgence of international hostility toward
Zionism and Jews, drawing an usually heated condemnation from the U.S.
ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, who was in attendance.
“It is a cruel irony that during the midst of a conference focused on ways of
dealing with the problems of anti-Semitism, we are reminded of it in such a
horrific manner,” Kurtzer said in his address.
At Hadassah hospital, the intensive-care unit was full, and it was one of those
busy mornings where staff had been wondering how they would cope with all
their patients. Then news of the bombing arrived, and then the victims.
The emergency staff — veterans of the many bombings that have plagued the
city — went into full action, treating injured who arrived in blood-soaked
The staffs at Hadassah and Shaarei Zedek, the other main hospital where the
injured were sent, dealt mostly with blast and other internal injuries, broken
limbs and cuts from metal pieces.
Reporters waited for photographs outside the emergency room and guards
manned the hospital entrance as hospital workers tried to make order amid
“We’ve seen too much,” said Irit Yagen, chief nurse, who was worried about
recruiting extra staff for Sabbath shifts.
Patients piled in — one with broken limbs, another with a blasted lung.
In one bed, Shalom Zaken, 54, the bus driver, said his head hurt and he
couldn’t hear. He had seen nothing unusual, he said.
Next to him, security guard Azouly was injured from lifting the wounded. His
mother already was waiting in the hospital when he arrived.
Azouly said he wanted to know the status of the woman he pulled from the bus.
“I don’t know where she is. I want to know how she is doing and I hope to see
her,” he said. “I hope she is alive.”