Jihad bombers killed in failed revenge attacks

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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

ASYA ABDUL-HADI

Gaza

"He was wearing a black sweater and I could see a barrel in the back seat of the car", said 14-year-old Munir Abu Eid, describing the last moments of a Palestinian suicide bomber who died yesterday morning as he tried to ram an Israeli bus in the Gaza strip.

The barrel, which presumably contained explosives, tore apart the beige Fiat 124 but only smashed the glass windows of the bus, lightly wounding 11 Israelis, mostly of whom were child-care workers. "I heard the yelling of the settlers and the soldiers inside before the ambulances came", Munir said. Casualties were probably low because an Israeli military jeep hampered the Fiat's approach to the bus, according to an Israeli officer at the scene.

The attack at Deir al-Ballah, in the south of the Gaza strip, comes six days after Fathi Shkaki, leader of the militant group Islamic Jihad, was assassinated in Malta. In an interview published in the Washington Post yesterday, the Israeli Health Minister, Ephraim Sneh, all but admitted his government was responsible. Members of Islamic Jihad, responsible in the past for suicide bomb attacks on Israeli targets, have sworn to avenge their leader's death.

A second suicide bomber died soon afterwards, as he tried to blow up an Israeli military convoy. But soldiers who had been expecting an attack avoided any Israeli casualties by halting 50 yards from where the car blew up. The southern Gaza strip, where there is a concentration of 15 Israeli settlements, has been the scene of suicide attacks in the past.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders will be relieved that the bombers failed to inflict serious casualties, but the attacks show Islamic Jihad is determined to prove it is still an effective force, despite Shkaki's death. Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, said they would press ahead with peace negotiations.

In the past, the most devastating suicide bombings have happened in Israel, when attackers strapped explosives to their bodies. Yesterday's attacks do not appear well planned, which may indicate that Islamic Jihad has been weakened by pressure from the Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces.

Israeli forces have been on the alert since the assassination of Shkaki, and the bus which was attacked was escorted by Israeli military jeeps. "God loves me", said Moshe Danino, the driver, whose hair was scorched as the Fiat hit the front of his bus, which was carrying workers to a settlement.

Mr Danino said his bus had just entered the Gaza Strip "when a car in front of us started to drive slowly. They [the soldiers] told its driver to move aside, but he paid them no attention.When we got within 200 metres of a roadblock, I turned left to pass him and that is when he drove at me and blew himself up."

The attack underlines the vulnerability of the 5,000 Israeli settlers who have remained in the Gaza strip despite Palestinian opposition. The women on the bus commute daily from poor agricultural towns in southern Israel to the Gush Katif block of settlements, where many work in kindergartens and nursery schools.

There will almost certainly be another attack. Jihad will want to show it is not a one-man band that will wither and die now Shkaki is no more.

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