After bombings, a grim routine
11 Israelis were killed Thursday in a bus bombing in Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility.
JERUSALEM AND BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — Reuven Pool has raced to the scene of suicide bombings dozens of times, perhaps scores - he hasn't kept count.
Sometimes he arrives at the wheel of an ambulance, sometimes as a volunteer emergency worker. After he sees to the wounded, he joins a squad of men who specialize in collecting scattered bits of human remains for Jewish burial.
Thursday morning, after a Palestinian man had blown himself up on a rush-hour bus, killing 11 Israelis, Mr. Pool examined a bus stop across the street from the blast site. He wore a white coverall and a white yarmulke and held a spackle knife in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. "With time, you get used to it," he says.
Palestinian suicide bombers have struck Israeli targets at least 85 times over the past two years, but Pool isn't the only one who has accustomed himself to the grim rituals that follow each attack.
For those most directly affected - the wounded and the families of the dead - the act is sudden, tragic, incomprehensibly violent. Four of the dead were under 18, according to police.
But many people at such scenes, including police, emergency workers, and volunteers such as Pool, simply get to work. Gil Kleiman, foreign press spokesman for the Israeli police, calls the aftermath of a suicide bombing "the routine of terror."
In the bomber's home, another sort of ritual occurs. Neighbors mill around and visitors sometimes congratulate the family on their relative's "martyrdom."
Thursday morning, in the Bethlehem home of Nael Abu Hilayel, his mother and aunt sat crossed-legged on plastic mats covering the cement floor of a small courtyard, each holding Abu Hilayel's picture in their hands.
Speaking to a reporter from a Bethlehem television station, the mother wept and wailed as she described how Nael had left home Wednesday for noon prayers at the mosque. He called later in the day, telling the family not expect him for the celebrations in early December that will mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. They tried to reach him all night, but his cellular phone was turned off.
Nael may have been with the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the attack in a leaflet published on its website Thursday.
His father, Azmi, says Nael acted because he "saw the flesh of the Palestinian people" scattered by Israeli fire. Israeli forces killed eight Palestinians on Tuesday and Wednesday, at least some of whom were militants.
Rhetoric such as Azmi's is common following suicide attacks. The governments involved also take practiced steps. The Israeli security Cabinet goes into special session and the Palestinian Authority (PA) condemns attacks on civilians - Israeli and Palestinian. At the scene, the focus is on restoring normalcy. Police immediately cordon off the area around a blast, clearing lanes for ambulances. Within minutes - 15 or 20 at the most - the wounded are on their way to hospitals, says Mr. Kleiman, the police spokesman.
Other police also ensure that no other attackers or explosive devices are in the area. Sometimes bombers strike in pairs; at other times those responding to an attack come under fire; on still other occasions car bombings have followed suicide attacks.
Intelligence and forensics experts immediately begin to determine the identity of the bomber. Thursday morning, says Kleiman, the police knew Abu Hilayel was responsible within an hour after the 7:20 a.m. attack.
The bus company removes the bombed bus. After the area has been scoured for human remains, clean-up crews come in to clear broken glass and other material and to wash the streets. Thursday's was the first such attack in Jerusalem in four months, but it took only three hours before the area where the bombing occurred was rinsed clean, with traffic moving on the street.
"If every site left a scar on the street," says Kleiman, "it would do heavy damage to the morale of the people." Cleaning up "is part of the war against terrorism," he says.
In Bethlehem, a few hours after the attack, people began anticipating Israeli retaliation - another aspect of Israel's war on terror. People left their homes to buy food, gasoline, and medicine.
This whirl of preparation also had an air of routine. "After every operation," says grocery-store owner Abdullah Hilo, using the Palestinian euphemism for a suicide attack, "there is an incursion." He was loading a sack of potatoes into the back of his car - his third shopping trip of the morning.
Gen. Ala Husni, commander of Bethlehem's police force, said in an interview that he was "very disturbed" by the bombing. "This young man goes to do this thing," he says, "and he takes Bethlehem with him, the future and destiny of Bethlehem, and perhaps of the Palestinian Authority."
During the past two years, Israel has held the PA responsible for suicide bombings, although it has never been clear to what extent Palestinian officials can control the actions of militant groups.
General Husni stresses the need for some sort of "political horizon" to lend legitimacy to Palestinian efforts to stop violence against Israel.
In the mid-1990s, he says, "we were able to paralyze Hamas and Islamic Jihad ... because there was a political process."
There is no shortage of despair on either side. A math and economics teacher named Jacob stood by the bus stop where Thursday's bombing took place, watching the clean up. He lives around the corner and takes the same bus to work.
Not Thursday. He heard the blast, called his son to say he was OK, and decided to take the day off. "There's no solution," he says. "We will go into [Palestinian area] and do something and they will answer."
As he spoke, two more rituals occurred. People brought candles to set up a memorial at the bus stop and began to pray. In the street, young men from the neighborhood gathered into a group. They began to shout: "Death to the Arabs."