'We thought the ceasefire meant we could relax. How wrong we were'

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The Independent Online

The sleek, green, double-length No 2 bus left the Wailing Wall, Judaism's holiest site, shortly before 9pm (7pm BST) on a sultry Jerusalem night. Packed with religious families returning from evening prayers, it was threading its way through a series of ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods north of the city centre when a 29-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up, taking 20 with him to the grave and sending a hundred more to the casualty wards. Ambulances were still removing the wounded half an hour later.

"It was the No 2 bus that came from the Western Wall," said a motorist, Jacob Bitnovsky. "It was a double bus. I heard a huge blast and when I turned around I saw parts of the bus flying everywhere. I got out of the car and ran. There was a lot of smoke and I saw a child on the ground gasping for air."

Shocked survivors, including several crying children with blood-smeared faces, were led away from the scene. A paramedic cradled a little girl in his arms, and two others led away an older woman.

Paramedics treated wounded on the pavement, and body parts were strewn on the side of the road.

Members of Zaka, the organisation of ultra-Orthodox volunteers who retrieve body parts for burial, were mobilised from a ceremony at which they were being honoured by Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister.

"We thought we could relax," their leader, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, told The Independent amid the carnage. "We thought the ceasefire had put an end to all this. How wrong we were."

As Mr Meshi-Zahav and his team, sweating and bloodstained, were sifting through the wreckage, they found three bodies huddled together. "When we lifted them off," he said, "we discovered a three-month-old baby underneath, alive and well." With so many dead and crippled, he hesitated to call it a miracle.

Asked if this was the worst atrocity he had experienced, he replied: "I can't say it was the worst, but it was extremely serious. It was all the harder for us because the victims were members of our religious community. We were rescuing people we knew, family and friends, we were helping the survivors to search for their loved ones. It was heart-rending."

More than an hour after the bombing, the bus stood skeletal and still under police arc lights on a corner, close to where an earlier bomber killed 11 religious Jews on a Saturday night in May last year. All its windows had been blown out and is metal twisted.

Hundreds of black-hatted yeshiva students and their rabbis crammed the street. Some called for vengeance against the Arabs. The police dragged them away amid catcalls from balconies. "He's a Jew, he's a Jew," they shouted. "Leave him alone." They were evicted, nonetheless.

This is a season when many religious families visit the Wailing Wall. Religious schools are on holiday and parents take time off to show their children holy places in the run-up to the Jewish New Year. Police were investigating whether the bomber boarded the bus disguised as an Orthodox Jew, as others have done in the past.

This was the gravest attack since the Palestinian militias proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire on 29 June.

THE MILITANTS MAZEN'S DILEMMA

At the moment the suicide bomber blew himself up in Jerusalem last night the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, was in a meeting with leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas attempting to reinforce the fragile ceasefire.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to al-Manar TV. Hamas also claimed responsibility. The attack was in response to the killing of the Islamic Jihad leader in Hebron last week and "the crimes of the Zionist occupation", in the words of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, a Hamas spokesman. Both militant organisations named the bomber as Raid Misk, from Hebron.

Israel is now certain to step up pressure on Abu Mazen to start his campaign "to dismantle the terror organisations". The large number of Israeli victims in the bus bombing will give legitimacy to Israeli pressures on Abu Mazen.

The Palestinian Prime Minister cannot win. If he yields to Israeli pressure and starts to dismantle the Palestinian militant organisations, he will be seen as an Israeli agent and lose his political credibility with the Palestinian people.

If he does not, the ceasefire will collapse and, eventually, so will the road-map.

Abu Mazen insists on achieving the ceasefire without using violence against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but he needs full co-operation from the Israeli side. "This operation is the most serious threat to the ceasefire,'' said the Fatah leader, Hatem Abdel Qader.

Said Ghazali

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