JERUSALEM -- A suicide attacker dressed as a devout Jew boarded a rush-hour city bus Wednesday evening and detonated a nail-packed bomb that killed 16 people, wounded scores and left many Israelis wondering whether the latest quest for Mideast peace is anything more than an empty dream.
"My heart is too small for this -- for this much suffering, and for hope to fit together with it," said Ofer Siso, a 32-year-old Jerusalem resident who heard the thunderous blast from his stall in a nearby covered market that has itself been the scene of several attacks. "All we can do is go forward, but the way is so hard."
In a pattern that has haunted the conflict, Israel quickly retaliated with two strikes against Palestinian targets.
A week after President Bush presided over handshakes and promises by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to seek a negotiated accord, both sides spoke Wednesday of the need to press ahead with the U.S.-backed "road map" -- but also to halt the spiraling violence, for which each increasingly blames the other.
Bush, who had issued a rare rebuke to Israel over Tuesday's assassination attempt against a senior leader of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, condemned Wednesday's bombing and appealed to all nations to cut off financial assistance to terrorist groups and "isolate those who hate so much they are willing to kill."
Bush, who has made implementing the road map a "matter of the highest priority," is facing increasing pressure to come up with bolder solutions to help bring the conflict under control.
Hamas, which had vowed it would take revenge for the attempt on Abdulaziz Rantisi's life, did not immediately make an official claim of responsibility for the bus attack. But the bomber was known to have ties to the group, and a Hamas spokesman said the attack was justified.
"This bombing is considered as legal resistance from our people and their right to defend themselves against Zionist escalation," Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh said.
The bomber struck at 5:20 p.m., at the height of the evening rush hour, on one of the busiest stretches of Jerusalem's main downtown artery, Jaffa Street. In a familiar tableau of carnage, rescue workers, police officers and soldiers swarmed around the shattered, smoke-blackened bus, stopped dead in its tracks by the force of the explosion. Behind swiftly erected police barricades, a crush of onlookers frantically tried to ascertain the safety of loved ones. "Where is Irit? Where is she, where is she?" one woman shouted into a cell phone, sobbing.
In shops and cars, people turned up the volume on radios blaring news bulletins. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in bright yellow reflective vests searched the sidewalk for scraps of flesh to ensure that the dead received a proper religious burial. Less than an hour after the bus bombing, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a car carrying two Hamas militants in the northern Gaza Strip, killing them and five passers-by. At around midnight, Apache helicopters again took to the skies and rocketed a car carrying two more militants, killing both of them, Palestinian witnesses said.
Sharon said Israeli forces would relentlessly hunt down those who carried out attacks against Israelis.
"Israel will continue to fight Palestinian terror organizations and their leaders whose purpose, as we saw again this evening, is to murder Jews," said the prime minister, speaking at a ceremony honoring the country's paramilitary border police.
At the same time, he declared himself "deeply committed to pursue every effort to move ahead in the process that we hope will bring us calm and peace."
The bombing and its aftermath brought a glimpse of the complex interplay between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Abbas, whom Arafat appointed under intense U.S. pressure.
Although sidelined diplomatically, Arafat still wields considerable power and prestige among Palestinians, while Abbas in the past week has been snubbed by groups such as Hamas in his attempts to negotiate a truce and criticized by his own people for not being tough enough at the summit. After the bombing, Arafat summoned reporters to his half-ruined compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah and read a statement in which he denounced ``the terrorist operation aimed at Israeli civilians in Jerusalem today'' but also called Israeli's failed strike at Hamas leader Rantisi a ``terrorist operation.'' Later, Abbas, who had traveled to Jordan for what Palestinian officials described as unspecified medical tests, issued a statement that closely tracked Arafat's, condemning the bus bombing and the attack on Rantisi as terrorist acts. He urged all the parties to cease fire. ^(Begin optional trim) The tenuousness of Abbas' position was on clear display when, before leaving for Jordan, he went to Arafat's compound for a meeting with Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who is trying to mediate between Abbas and the armed Palestinian factions. When they emerged, reporters asked the prime minister if he was thinking of resigning. ``The only person who can tell me to resign is President Arafat, and he did not ask me to resign,'' Abbas replied, whereupon Arafat interrupted him jovially. ``I did not ask you to resign!'' he exclaimed. ^(End optional trim) The bus bombing overshadowed what had been an emerging debate among Israelis over the attempt to kill Rantisi. Former lawmaker Yossi Sarid, one of the architects of the failed Oslo, Norway, peace accords, said that the timing placed tremendous pressure on Abbas and made it more difficult for him to act against Hamas. ``The life of the Palestinian prime minister is unbearably difficult and complicated, and those who sent the missiles should have taken into account that Rantisi would not be the victim, but Abu Mazen (Abbas) himself,'' Sarid wrote in a commentary for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. Sharon's camp insisted that striking at Hamas was necessary and justified. ``It must be understood that what Sharon did yesterday was courageous in that he tried to hit the element trying to foil the peace process,'' Trade Minister Ehud Olmert said. While insisting that Israel would honor its commitments under the road map, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled suggested that more violence by Palestinian militants could slow down implementation. ``We are committed to our part of deal, to the Aqaba statements,'' he said, referring to the summit last week in the Jordanian port city. ``We will continue dismantling outposts and doing everything that is expected from us, but obviously not while buses are being blown up.'' Israeli police said that since the summit, 10 attempted terror attacks had been foiled before this one succeeded, and they bleakly acknowledged that their preventive measures would likely fail again. ``Unfortunately, we cannot always stop the lone terrorist,'' Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki said. ``Sadly, this scenario is predictable _ that one terrorist will slip through the many rings of security.'' LA TIMES-WASHINGTON POST--06-11-03 2103EDT<