A suicide bomber from the militant Islamic movement, Hamas, yesterday detonated 30 pounds of explosives aboard a bus in the centre of Jerusalem, killing 18 other passengers. The attack may have struck a fatal blow to the government of Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, and to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I've had it with the peace process," said a shopkeeper looking at the wreckage of bus number 18 on Jerusalem's Jaffa road. "We gave the Palestinians what they said they wanted and now we have 47 dead in one week." President Ezer Weizman called on the government to halt its talks with the Palestinians.
The suicide bombing, by a Palestinian tentatively named as Islam Mohammed, 24, from Hebron, south of Jerusalem - was a carbon copy of that which took place on a bus with the same number, also on Jaffa Road, exactly a week before. The time of the explosion, at 6.25am, was only 20 minutes earlier than the first bomb.
It ripped through the the red-and-white bus just as it passed the central post office. Only the burnt-out metal framework of the bus was left. A body was left under a white sheet as 10 wounded were rushed to hospital. Crowds shouted "do something, do something" and "Peres get out". The Prime Minister was jeered when he visited the site of the explosion.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement to the Israeli people, saying: "We tell you calmly that neither Labour nor Likud will offer you security as long as your government uses terrorism against us and continues to arrest our people. The closure and all security measures will not prevent us from striking whenever and wherever we can."
It appears from the statement that Hamas is now split between those who support the suicide bombing and those who believe it could destroy the Islamic movement. It says that yesterday's bomb was the last attack in revenge for the assassination of Yahyah Ayyash, the chief Hamas bomb-maker, killed by a booby-trapped telephone on 5 January.
Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, has declared the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad illegal. He said the attack was mounted "not just against Israel but against the Palestinians and the peace process".
After a cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Peres announced an all-out war on Hamas, with measures to include $100m spent on building fences between Palestinians and Jews and punishment of the families of bombers. He said: "We all agree to topple this organisation. We will not shy from any measure. We decided to give this war the highest and most unequivocal priority - all that we have in men, ideas and means."
It is difficult to see, however, why these measures should prove effective. The suicide bombers require minimal equipment, training or organisation. The bomber yesterday could have walked in just five minutes from Palestinian areas in east Jerusalem to a bus stop at the beginning of the Jaffa Road and exploded his device - which was packed in nails - a single stop later. Among those who died were six Romanian workers and two Palestinians.
Mr Peres was already in deep political trouble after bombs in Jerusalem and Ashkelon last week killed 25 Israelis. His 16 per cent lead in the polls, which was expected to produce a landslide in the election on 29 May, was wiped out overnight. There is also no doubt that many Israelis feel that he did not do enough to improve security in the week between the bombs.
The bombs are also killing off support for the peace process in general. Just after yesterday's explosion Ehud Olmert, the right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, whose office overlooks the spot where bus 18 was destroyed, said: "I doubt that the Israeli people will tolerate the continuance of peace with people who are either unwilling or unable to stop the killers coming from within them."
Many Israelis are angry with Mr Arafat for failing to clamp down successfully on Hamas. Although he has arrested 300 of its members and started to confiscate arms, Israel believes that important activists walk the streets in Gaza. Palestinians say many of those named are already in jail. It is also true that the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up on 25 February came from al-Fawwar refugee camp outside Hebron which is under overall Israeli control.
The attack yesterday was geared to show Israelis that the suicide bomber will always get through. The number 18 bus was carrying a security guard for the first time. The roads from the West Bank into Jerusalem were closed to Palestinians. Helicopters fly permanently overhead in Jerusalem. None the less, the attack succeeded.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud party, who may well be the next Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday proposed sending troops into Palestinian-ruled areas and deporting ringleaders. The government did not rule this out, but believes such a strategy is likely to produce more, rather than fewer suicide attacks.Reuse content