Bomb attacks expose Rabin's desperation

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The Independent Online
An Israeli soldier was carefully collecting the remains of two sub-machine guns, their barrels twisted by the bomb blast, and placing them in a crumpled piece of tin which had once been part of an advertising hoarding.

The weapons belonged to two soldiers who had died a few hours before - at about 9.30am yesterday - when two explosions blew in the east wall of a snack bar just off Israel's main north-south road at Beit Lid.

There were other signs of the strength of the blast which killed 19, mostly soldiers, and wounded 62. It had decapitated a tree, snapping off the top half of the trunk which was lying, branches scorched by the heat, about 10 feet away. On the other side of Route 4, a six-lane trunk road, ultra-orthodox Jews in black coats, wearing white surgical gloves, were scouring the ground for remains of the dead.

Overlooking the scene were the forbidding watchtowers and walls of Hasharon prison, where Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the most famous Palestinian Islamic leader and founder of Hamas, is held by the Israelis. Presumably whoever had planned the bombing had known that the blast would be heard inside the jail, but he may also have chosen Beit Lid because its bus stops and snack bars are always full of soldiers from nearby bases around Netanya, moving north to Haifa or south to Tel Aviv. It is also only 10 miles from Tulkarm, one of the largest Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

The circumstances in which the two bombs went off are becoming clear, though most witnesses are dead or severely wounded. Joseph Savir, from the nearby Madaa medical centre, who was one of the first doctors on the scene, said: "They told us the first bomb was not so severe. Most of the injuries came from the second bomb."

Islamic Jihad said last night that there were two suicide bombers, both from Gaza, the first of whom exploded a device and then - when a crowd of soldiers and other rushed to the spot to tend the injured - the second bomber exploded 5-10 kilos of explosives strapped to his body.

"We have 19 corpses. This number is not final. Among the bodies is one terrorist," said the police chief, Assaf Hefetz. The number is likely to rise because 13 are severely wounded with multiple trauma injuries. It is the worst attack since October, whena suicide bomber from Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group, killed 22 people in a bus in Tel Aviv, and comes after two abortive attacks.

Driving from Jerusalem to Beit Lid I gave a lift to three naval cadets standing beside the road who were trying to get to their base in Haifa. Israeli military often travel by hitchhiking. The cadets, all 18, were feeling lucky because they should have left Jerusalem two hours earlier, which would have put them at Beit Lid at the time the bombs went off.

"I am afraid waiting beside the road and I don't get into every car that stops," said one.

In general the cadets favoured the negotiations with the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, but they felt talks should be postponed until Mr Arafat did something to stop the bomb attacks. At Beit Lid the mood was more militant. When the Israeli Prime, Yitzhak Rabin, pulling out of a ceremony to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz 50 years ago, arrived by helicopter there was a scuffle and some of the crowd shouted abuse.

Eli Dadon, a grizzled man in blue check shirt, whose son was killed by a bomb in Gaza and who now visits the site of every incident, said: "While there is this terror there should be no peace." An opposition Knesset member, Rabbi Joseph Bagad, said: "Rabin must go. He should let [General] Arik Sharon clean out the people who did this."

There is no doubt that Mr Rabin is in an increasingly desperate position. His popularity was based above all on his reputation for acumen about security and Beit Lid, on top of earlier attacks, shows that he does not know how to respond effectively. He was already in political trouble because of divisions within his cabinet over Israeli settlements which have continued to expand, provoking a furious Palestinian reaction.

Islamic Jihad in Damascus, claiming responsibility, said yesterday's attack was in response to the settlements.

The problem for Mr Rabin, which may doom his government at the next elections in 1996 if not before, is that over the past six months he has seemed unable to decide what to do. By failing to redeploy troops out of West Bank towns, halt settlement or release prisoners, he has disillusioned Palestinians, who look increasingly to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

At the same time Israelis see that 109 of their people, as well as 195 Palestinians, have been killed since the peace agreement was signed with the PLO in September 1993 and increasingly wonder why they should make any concessions when the process is notgiving them greater security.