Honeymoon is over for Peres

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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

The suicide bomber who blew himself up on board the red-and-white No. 18 bus as it drove along Jaffa street in the heart of Jerusalem yesterday morning, left little to chance. Live bullets and ball-bearings wrapped around the explosives ensured that 22 of his fellow passengers, on their way to work, were killed and another 50 were injured.

The bomb went off at 6.46, just at the beginning of the morning rush hour. Around 50 minutes later a second suicide bomber, dressed in Israeli army uniform, blew himself up at a hitch-hiking pick-up point used by soldiers in the coastal city of Ashkelon, killing one Israeli. The Islamic militant movement Hamas said it carried out the attacks in revenge for the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, seen as the mastermind of the suicide bombing campaign, by a booby-trapped mobile phone in Gaza last month.

The bombings killed and wounded more Israelis than any attacks since the start of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. They will badly damage the chances of successful talks on a final agreement which are due to start in May. They will also make it more difficult for Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, and the Labour Party to win the general election on 29 May.

The attacks end a four-month period when the right was de-legitimised in the eyes of many Israelis because it was seen as setting the stage for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, last November. There were signs yesterday that this mood has changed. Eyal Cohen, a construction worker who lives near to where the bomb went off, said: "That's the way things are going in Israel. People die and they talk about peace and again people die." When Mr Peres visited the tangled wreckage people shouted: "Peres, you are next."

Overall the crowds of people, many of them ultra-orthodox Jews who live in the nearby district of Mea She'arim, were silent as they watched police and rescue workers carry bodies out of the remains of the bus.The only other casualties in Jaffa street appear to have been the driver of a white minibus, which was being used as a taxi, and people on board a second bus, a No 46.

In Gaza, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said: "This is not a military operation. This is a terrorist operation. I condemn it completely. It is not only against civilians but against the whole peace process." A revenge attack in response to the death of Ayyash, also known as "The Engineer", had been expected but not on this scale. Mr Arafat had come close to persuading Hamas to stop their bombing campaign, but the people he has talked to may not control the Izzedine al-Qassim brigades, the military wing of Hamas.

"The students of 'The Engineer' bear responsibility for the two heroic attacks in al-Quds [Jerusalem] and al-Majdel [Ashkelon]," said a caller to Israel radio's Arabic service claiming to speak for Izzedine al-Qassim. A leaflet issued in Gaza also claimed responsibility saying the organisation had won "a military and intelligence victory". Curiously the leaflet also contains an offer to end attacks if Izzedine al-Qassim prisoners are released and Israel stops its hunt for its members. It says: "We will then be most careful not to spill a drop of blood in the land of Palestine."

Such an offer is unlikely to get much response from Israel. A sign of the growth of anti-Palestinian feeling is a report by Palestinian workers that their bus was deliberately rammed in Ashkelon three hours after the suicide attack. Palestinian police in Gaza said they could not confirm if the attack was deliberate. Israel also closed all borders with the West Bank and Gaza, throwing tens of thousands of Palestinians out of work. This has more to do with quelling Israeli anxieties than real security, because the border of the Occupied Territories is too long to guard effectively.

Mr Peres said he had demanded that Mr Arafat breaks up the infrastructure of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. In the past the Palestinian leader has played cat-and-mouse with the Islamic militants, alternatively wooing them and putting them in jail. Palestinian security services have recently got tougher, shooting dead two members of Islamic Jihad, the other Islamic organisation responsible for suicide bombs, whom they cornered in a house in Gaza.

The Israeli prime minister says he has frozen talks with the Palestinian Authority until after the dead are buried. When talks resume, the political atmosphere is likely to be very different. One of the reasons Mr Peres brought the election forward from October to May was that the Oslo accords were suddenly popular. In the wake of the death of Mr Rabin, the peaceful Israeli military pull out from the West Bank towns and the Palestinian elections, Israeli polls showed that 59 per cent of voters favoured Oslo.

The resumption of the bombing campaign is likely to be unpopular among the majority of Palestinians. The elections and Israeli withdrawal were widely welcomed. Israel had recently relaxed the closure. The bombs may also lead to a postponement of the partial Israeli withdrawal from the southern city of Hebron, which was due to take place next month. Above all the honeymoon in Israeli-Palestinian relations, caused by the assassination of Mr Rabin by an Israeli, is now over.

How the bombers have tried to wreck the Middle East peace process

25 February 1994: Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein sprays gunfire in Hebron mosque, killing 29.

6 April: Hamas suicide bomber kills eight on Afula bus.

13 April: Hamas bomber kills five in Hadera bus blast.

14 October: Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, kidnapped by Hamas, is killed during failed rescue attempt.

19 October: Hamas bomber kills 22 on bus in Tel Aviv.

2 November: Hani Abed, an Islamic Jihad activist, is killed when his car blows up in Gaza.

11 November: Palestinian from Islamic Jihad kills himself and three Israeli soldiers at Gaza military post.

25 December: Hamas bomber - a Palestinian policeman - wounds 13 in Jerusalem near soldiers' bus stop.

22 January 1995: Two Islamic Jihad suicide bombers kill 21 at bus stop in central Israel.

2 April: Gaza City apartment blast kills several Palestinians, among them Hamas guerrilla Kamal Kheil.

9 April: Two suicide bombers kill eight in Gaza Strip.

22 June: A leader of Islamic Jihad is assassinated in Gaza.

25 June: Palestinian donkey-cart driver blows himself up in Gaza near Israeli soldiers, wounding three.

24 July: Hamas suicide bomber kills six on Tel Aviv bus.

21 August: Five die in Hamas bombing of Jerusalem bus.

2 November: Suicide car bombers in Gaza wound eight.

5 January 1996: Hamas master-bombmaker Yahya Ayyash dies when cellular phone explodes in his hands in Gaza.

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