As Israelis reeled at the horror of the Hamas suicide attack in the quiet northern town of Afula, the government moved swiftly to shore up support for the peace process, insisting that such attacks had been anticipated and would not sabotage the Oslo accords.
'The peace process is intended to decrease the level of terrorism, and if we end the peace process we are in essence depositing our futures in the hands of these evil people,' said Yossi Sarid, the Environment Minister and one of the negotiators.
Signalling the recent dramatic change in Israeli-PLO relations, and their joint interest in isolating the Islamic opposition, officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation also condemned the attack.
Diab al-Louh, PLO spokesman in Gaza, said: 'Every drop of blood spilled at zero hour is regrettable. We as Palestinians are making every effort to move into a new era, when there will not be any killing or bloodshed.'
However, the attack is a coup for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement which opposes the peace process and claimed responsibility for the killings. Hamas's armed wing, Izzidin al Qassem, had threatened to take revenge against Jewish settlers inside the occupied territories. That the attack took place inside Israel proper doubly fuelled public outrage.
Opposition politicians were quick to capitalise on that anger, calling on the government to halt the Cairo negotiations on self-rule for Gaza and Jericho, as the Palestinian leadership did after the Hebron massacre on 25 February, in which Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, killed an estimated 40 Arabs while they were at prayer.
With Israelis preparing to mark Holocaust memorial day today, spontaneous anti-government protests erupted in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Television reports of the bombing had brought home the extent of the carnage. The victims were on or near the bus, which was waiting to collect teenagers leaving school. At least one Israeli Arab was killed.
Albert Amos, a driving instructor, said: 'Two boys were burning like torches. They came running toward me, and I took one and doused the flames with a rag and then I ripped off his clothes. He was burnt all over. When I touched him, pieces of his skin came off in my hand.'
'We heard and felt a great explosion,' said Haim Volvovitch, superintendent of a cultural centre near the bus stop. 'We saw the shell of a bus, all burnt through. In front of it was the burning lump of a car . . . There were kids running all over the place. People were bleeding on the ground. Most of the injured were high school kids.'
Despite the immediate outrage, the attack is unlikely to damage the peace process. Since the Hebron massacre, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, has showed renewed determination to implement the first stage of the Oslo accords by preparing for redeployment in Gaza and the Jericho area.
Talks in Cairo, aimed at finalising terms of the redeployment, hit new snags yesterday, as the Israeli delegation infuriated Palestinians by taking a three-day break from the negotiations. 'Regrettably, we have not seen any real signs from the Israeli side of a precise, honest and rapid implementation of what has been agreed,' complained Yasser Arafat, PLO chairman.
Although terms have not been finalised for the arrival of a Palestinian police force in Gaza and Jericho, the momentum of the peace process is such that the withdrawal of Israeli forces is unlikely to be halted easily.
Nevertheless, there were fears in government circles that the bombing would spark reprisals by Jewish militants against Arabs, creating
an uncontrollable spiral of violence. Israeli police were patrolling Arab
villages near Afula last night and
a new security clampdown was in force throughout the occupied
The ability of Hamas to carry out the bombing, believed to have been committed by a 19-year-old man from a nearby West Bank village, has shaken the security establishment. The explosives were planted in a car stolen in Tel Aviv, according to Israel Radio.
The attack took place on the day Mr Rabin was giving evidence in camera to the Commission of Inquiry into the Hebron killings. As Defence Minister, as well as Prime Minister, he is responsible for the Israeli army, whose security failures then are being examined. Details of his evidence were not revealed.
Negotiators depart, page 12
Leading article, page 17
Last exit from Jericho? page 18
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