Bus No. 19, and hope, blasted in Jerusalem
Talks between US, Israeli, and Palestinian officials were canceled Thursday after a suicide bombing.
JERUSALEM — Taffy Sassoon was going to get a piece of artwork framed Thursday morning when she felt the boom above her head.
"I heard this enormous blast, and I thought that it was a plane," says Mrs. Sassoon, trying to regain her composure after witnessing Thursday's suicide bombing here that killed 10 Israelis and wounded more than 50.
"Then I realized that the blast was too big and that it didn't come from the sky," she says. "The whole roof of the bus was gone. At first there was a kind of silence, and then an echoing of the blast. And then I could hear whimpering coming from the bus." Sassoon says she leaned the picture, a rare Chagall print, against a pole and rushed over to try to help the wounded. "I couldn't look," she says. "I realized that I didn't have the stomach to help." She is still stunned by the knowledge that, had she been crossing this key intersection of the upscale Rehavia neighborhood just a moment later, she might have lost her life, too.
Others things were lost Thursday in the wreckage of bus No. 19: other lives, but also other opportunities to make headway in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. The bombing cast a cloud over Thursday's historic prisoner release that had been brokered between Israel and Hizbullah, a Lebanon-based Muslim militant group. The release, three years in the making, raised expectations that there could be a small breakthrough here - potentially culminating in a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, widely known as Abu Ala.
Trilateral talks between US, Israeli and Palestinian officials, scheduled to take place Thursday afternoon, were canceled by Mr. Sharon's office. The talks were to focus on how to ease the economic strain on Palestinians imposed by Israeli travel restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza.
"On a difficult day like today, when innocent Israelis are murdered on the streets of Israel's capital, there is no room to talk about easing restrictions," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in a statement. "It is up to the Palestinians to live up to their responsibilities to fight terror. Without that, there is no room for progress in the peace process."
Palestinian officials condemned the bombings, but quickly pointed to what they said was Israel's role in provoking the violence. "We cannot provide security through settlements and through walls," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
After a period of relative calm here, a wind of violence has swept in like a destructive old weather pattern. Palestin-ians say there has been a steady stream of violence against them, even though it has been four months since such a deadly suicide bombing. In the Gaza Strip a day earlier, the Israeli army raided an enclave of Islamic Jihad - a Muslim militant group which rejects all peace negotiations with Israel - and in the ensuing battle, killed eight Palestinians, at least three of whom appeared to be innocent bystanders.
The clashes and Thursday's suicide attack all came within hours of a key meeting with two senior US officials - Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield and John Wolf, President Bush's special envoy - who were here to twist arms in the direction of implementing the Bush Administration's road map for Middle East peace.
The Israeli government, however, dismissed suggestions that Thursday's bombing was planned to coincide with either the percolating diplomatic activity or with the prisoner swap. The only reason more bombings have not taken place in recent weeks, Israeli officials argue, is that they have succeeded in thwarting them. "It's not really connected," says Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. "It takes weeks of preparation and planning for such a thing."
But that was not the image left behind by Ali Munir Jaara, the Palestinian policeman who blew himself up Thursday. Masked men provided his final handwritten words, left in a notebook, to a local television station in Bethlehem. "I have carried out this operation for the sake of God and in reply to the crimes of ... Sharon, and specifically for the massacre in the neighborhood of Zeytoun, in Gaza," Mr. Jaara wrote. "We say to Sharon that this is a part of a chain of suicide operations, and that coming operations will be much greater." The note was signed on behalf of the al-Aqsa Brigades, which is an offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
At the Aida Palestinian refugee camp, near the village of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, local well-wishers came to visit the Jaara family. He had given no indication, family members said, of what he had set out to do. "My son was very committed to his job with the police. He went to work and came home. He was very committed to religion as well, but I didn't expect him to do this," says Munir Jaara, a father of seven.
But Israeli officials say they expect more Palestinians to follow suit - and point to Thursday's attack as proof that Israel needs the controversial wall it is building through the West Bank. "This attack underscores the need for a security fence," says David Baker, a spokesman for Prime Minister Sharon. While Israel argues that the wall is already keeping out many infiltrators, Palestinians and international critics say it is cutting through the heart of Palestinian society.
• Samir Zedan in Beit Jala, West Bank, contributed to this report.