A MASSIVE bomb explosion on a Jerusalem bus yesterday seemed likely to exacerbate Jewish-Arab tensions, just as Israel and the PLO finalize preparations for a limited Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank.
At least five people were killed and 100 injured in the apparent suicide bombing that demolished a city bus carrying mostly university students through a Jewish neighborhood in morning rush-hour traffic. The Jewish area borders predominantly Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
The Islamic militant organization, Hamas, which opposes the PLO-Israel peace deal, claimed responsibility for the attack in an anonymous call to an Israeli radio station.
Hamas is the leading opposition group to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), responsible for negotiating and signing the September 1993 peace deal with Israel. In an attempt to derail the accord, Hamas has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that have killed about 86 Israelis and wounded 272 others since the deal was signed in Washington. Most of its attacks have been launched from the Gaza Strip.
But Israeli security sources said that yesterday's suicide attacker may have come from the West Bank, rather than Gaza. Police also said they were investigating the possibility that a woman may have carried out the attack.
Israel immediately sealed its borders with the occupied West Bank, and hundreds of angry Jews staged protests near the site of the attack. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak immediately suspended talks with Palestinians on the final details of an accord on partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank population centers. Palestinian diplomatic sources expressed fears that the attack may delay the planned September signing of the interim West Bank accord in Washington.
A tentative agreement was reached Aug. 11 between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, which would leave Palestinian security forces in charge of seven major West Bank towns and cities and give Palestinian police officers limited powers in hundreds of West Bank Arab villages. The accord is supposed to pave the way for Palestinians to elect a self-rule council.
Mr. Peres said the talks would be delayed, but that the attack should not postpone the signing of an agreement.
The attack in Jerusalem came just 24 hours after Israel lifted a two-week-long closure on the Gaza Strip. Israel sealed its border with Gaza on Aug. 10 on intelligence information that another suicide bombing attack was imminent.
Over the weekend, three Hamas militants surrendered to Palestinian police after a four-hour street fight in which they exchanged gunfire with hundreds of Palestinian police.
Mr. Arafat has vowed that he will crack down on Muslim militants who are waging attacks from the Palestinian self-rule areas - even if it costs lives.
Hamas, however, in its reported telephone conversation with Israeli radio yesterday, vowed to continue its ''crusade'' until Israel's scheduled November 1996 elections.
IN Gaza, Arafat quickly denounced the bombing, calling it ''a terrorist attack.'' But he also called on Israel to keep passages between the West Bank and Israel open to Palestinian workers.
The prime minister, however, stayed away from the bombing site, where angry protesters intermittently called ''death to Rabin.''
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a leader of the right-wing Likud Party, said the attack was aimed at undermining Israel's claims of sovereignty on the Israeli capital. Mr. Olmert, a staunch opponent of the peace process, said he would seek to clamp down on operations of the PLO security police in the capital following the incident - even though the attack was apparently carried out by the PLO's Islamic opposition.
''Jerusalem is the target. It is the heart,'' said Olmert. ''It's obvious that they chose Jerusalem because it is on the agenda.''
Meanwhile, Israeli President Ezer Weizman, who visited the scene of the attack late yesterday morning, was shouted down by a chorus of catcalls from angry Israelis. ''The question isn't whether we continue or don't continue the peace process. It's much bigger - how will we find a permanent settlement that will allow us to live together,'' Mr. Weizman said.
And right-wing Likud Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the bombings, ''a routine that we have already gotten used to. I hope that the prime minister will understand the deep cry that is coming from among the people to take a real time-out and think fundamentally on a new way to ensure the security and future of the country.''