Pools of blood, body parts and a peace process in a critical state

Road-map in jeopardy after suicide bomber kills 16 on commuter bus and Israelis retaliate by firing rocket into traffic jam, killing seven
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The Independent Online

A week after George Bush's landmark summit in Aqaba, the violence in the Middle East is spinning out of control again and his road-map to peace appears to be in dire trouble.

The suicide bombing that killed 16 civilians and injured 93 on a packed commuter bus in central Jerusalem yesterday was quickly followed by an Israeli rocket attack on a traffic jam in central Gaza, which killed seven people.

If someone hoped to stop the peace process, they got exactly what they wanted.

The suicide bombing was forecast from the moment Israel tried to assassinate Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, a leader of Hamas' political wing, on Tuesday - which drew a sharp rebuke from the White House and made no sense, coming just as Hamas leaders were talking of resuming talks over a possible ceasefire.

The scene in Jerusalem was as predictable as it was sickening: the bus, its roof torn aside like a crumpled tin can, roped off in Jaffa Street; body parts scattered on the pavements; the blood that Israeli teams were still mopping up in the evening.

"Pools of blood, cut-off body parts, cut-off heads - this is what I saw," one witness said yesterday. That could have been a description of the scene in Jaffa Street. In fact, it was a Palestinian's description of Israel's retaliation in Gaza.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing. This was the "earthquake" the group had promised in response to Israel's botched attempt to kill Mr Rantisi.

The bomb was a chilling indication of how powerful the militant group remains despite years of pounding by the Israeli army; able to order a suicide bombing in the heart of Jerusalem within a day.

Yesterday evening, Jaffa Street, usually the busiest road in Jerusalem, was silent except for the sirens. People stood, shock on their faces, trying to comprehend that the killing was back so soon after the optimism of the summit in Jordan.

President Bush, his anger visible, condemned the day's events. "I urge and call upon all of the free world, nations which love peace, to not only condemn the killings, but to use every ounce of their power to prevent them from happening in the future," he said.

"To the people in the world who want to see peace in the Middle East, I strongly urge all of you to fight off terror, to cut off money to organisations such as Hamas, to isolate those who hate so much that they're willing to kill to stop peace from going forward." A day earlier, President Bush was rebuking Israel for the attempted assassination.

Immediately after the bus bombing yesterday, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, vowed to continue pursuing Palestinian "terror groups and their leaders".

The suicide bombing came during the afternoon rush hour. Jaffa Street has seen more of these attacks than any other street in Israel - it is a sort of suicide bomber's alley. This time the bomber, disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, got on bus number 14 near the Mahane Yehuda fruit market. Moments later there was an explosion so powerful that some of those on board were thrown through the windows of the bus. The bomb, as usual, was packed with nails, which caused terrible injuries.

"I saw a girl, about 15 or 16, who was blown from the bus," said Chen Knafo, a security guard who was near by at the time. "I took her aside and gave her first aid until a medic came." His shirt was stained with blood. Shirli Rafael, another witness, said: "I was around the corner when I heard the explosion. I ran to the scene and simply froze. My legs couldn't move. I saw dead people. Severed hands and fingers lay at my feet. I saw a lot of women covered with blood. Their skin was scorched. There was a headless body near the door."

Minutes later the Israeli helicopter retaliated by firing missiles at a car carrying a senior figure from Hamas' armed wing in Gaza. The car was sitting in a traffic jam when the missiles hit.

Witnesses said that the helicopter fired a second time, into a crowd of civilians. Massoud Ramadan, 65, who saw the attack, said: "When we started trying to evacuate them from the car, another missile attack took place while a huge number of people were gathering trying to help the wounded."

If his account is true, the Israeli military deliberately aimed at civilians.

Two bodies were taken from the car. One had been decapitated. They were believed to be Tito Massoud, a senior Hamas leader, and Soffil Abu Nahez, also a member of Hamas. Palestinian sources said that the latter was a former bodyguard for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the organisation's spiritual leader. But five other people were killed by the rockets. They were believed to be innocent bystanders.

Angry Palestinians vilified their Prime Minister in Gaza yesterday. "Where is Abu Mazen to come and see?" shouted Jamil Hamdia as he carried his wounded 11-year-old cousin through the hospital. "Are we cheap, to be killed like this? If that makes him a good leader I think his place is not among us."

Twenty-two Palestinians and 21 Israelis have been killed since the Aqaba summit on 4 June. The road-map, which provides for an agreement implemented in phases, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, requires Abu Mazen to put pressure on Hamas and other militant groups to end their violence. His task seems more difficult than ever. But Israel is insisting that he cracks down hard and dismantles the militant groups by force if necessary.

As Hamas and the Israeli army traded violence, Abu Mazen was left to call in vain for both sides to stop the violence immediately and return to the road-map. "Stopping this deterioration necessitates that all parties should comply to a ceasefire and end violence and to start serious efforts to implement the road-map," said a statement issued by his office. Yet in international terms, Abu Mazen and his new Palestinian cabinet are the only ones to come out of this latest round of violence looking good. Mr Bush's anger at Hamas was plain to see yesterday. And his rebuke to Israel after the attempted assassination of Mr Rantisi was unusually sharp.

These events happened against the backdrop of a Haaretz newspaper report that quoted an "insider" at the closed-door meetings in Aqaba last week. The paper said that President Bush had told Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser, that the Israeli Prime Minister was a "problem" and that he had rebuked Mr Sharon and Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, in a meeting with both sides. But Mr Bush is supposed to have told Ms Rice that he liked General Mofaz's Palestinian counterpart, Mohammed Dahlan, and that he believed Abu Mazen was incapable of lying.

Yesterday, Abu Mazen was the lone voice in calling for peace. His problem will be staving off Palestinian opposition if Israeli attacks continue.