Israelis in fear of car bombs shoot motorist

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

The time and place of the accident could not have been worse. Driving in French Hill, a suburb of Jerusalem, Ahmed Abdel Hamida, a Palestinian- American, went into a skid and crashed into a bus queue, killing an Israeli woman. Bystanders, fearing they were victims of another suicide attack, shot Mr Hamida dead as he got out of his car.

As his body lay on the road soldiers forced crowds back, suspecting that the crumpled black Fiat beside the bus stop contained a bomb. Only as police examined the skid marks on the wet road did they realise that what seems to have been a routine, if tragic, accident had been misinterpreted as a third attack by suicide bombers.

The incident underlined the tensions in Israel on the day after 25 people were killed in two attacks in Jerusalem and the coastal city of Ashkelon.

Immediately after the accident Israeli settlers, who use the bus stop to travel to the West Bank, pursued and beat some passing Palestinian youths.

Watched by hundreds of ultra-orthodox Jews who live in the neighbourhood, police sealed off part of north Jerusalem. A police spokesman said that Mr Hamida, who lived in California, was staying with friends in the nearby city of Ramallah, now under Palestinian control, where he had hired the Fiat Uno seven days before.

About 50 yards from the bus stop the skid marks begin as if he had accelerated to beat the lights at a nearby cross-roads and his car had then gone out of control. Many Israelis, particularly in this section of Jerusalem, carry weapons and are ready to use them. Police were last night questioning the men who opened fire.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday told the Israeli parliament: "We will not stop the peace process, but we will take all fitting means to strike at the terrorists, any place they may be."

The Islamic organisation Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings, says the attacks were in revenge for the assassination of its chief bomb-maker, Yahyah Ayyash.

Mosse Weissfish, who said he would have been in the bus queue if he had not stopped to talk to someone in a nearby supermarket, said: "I expected there would be attacks but not until after the elections." Mr Weissfish is from New York. Like many settlers, he assumed Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the weekend bombs, is hand-in-glove with Yasser Arafat, head of the PLO.

Most of his anger was directed at Mr Peres, whom he called "the worst leader of the Jews in 4,000 years". Mr Weissfish condemned the Prime Minister for not ending talks with the Palestinians.

Detestation of Mr Peres is common among settlers and the right, but fear of being blamed for setting the stage for the assassination in November of Yitzhak Rabin has silenced them for the past few months.

The bombs on Sunday have changed all that. A poll held afterwards gave Mr Peres a lead over Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud opposition leader, of 3 points, down from 16. The elections are on 29 May.

There were more signs of the changing mood in Israel in the parking lot where bus Number 18 had been blown up on Sunday, killing 24 passengers and wounding 41. Within hours it had been turned into a shrine of the right, mimicking the scene at the back of Tel Aviv town hall in the days after the murder of Rabin, who was portrayed as a martyr of the left.

There were thousands of candles, screens with anti-government messages and a large sign reading: "Goodbye, Friends". This, pointed out Haim Levin, a religious Jew, was a copy of the slogan "Goodbye, Friend", coined by President Bill Clinton after the death of Rabin, and used as a rallying- cry by his supporters ever since.

Mr Levin, a social worker, tried to describe the mood after the bombs. "People are confused and it might go either way. Jerusalem is full of religious Jews and they don't like Peres anyway. People think differently in Tel Aviv. But people are dying on the streets and somebody must be responsible." He said the only way for Israelis to be safe was to build a Berlin wall around themselves.

Mr Peres is doing everything he can to reduce their sense of vulnerability. Routes from the West Bank and Gaza have been closed, preventing tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from entering Israel. Given the length of the so-called Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories, this is a dubious contribution to security.

Nevertheless, the roads could remain closed until the election,devastating the Palestinian economy. Mr Peres and the Labour Party can probably still win the election if there are no more suicide bombs. He is demanding that Mr Arafat destroy the infrastructure of Hamas in Gaza, where 60 of its activists were arrested yesterday.

Leading article, page 14

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