For Israelis, Tuesday's bus bombing was a landmark atrocity. For the Palestinian Authority, it also promises to be devastating, but for very different reasons.
It was one of the worst of the scores of Palestinian suicide attacks in nearly two years of hostilities, leaving at least 19 dead and some 40 wounded, including students en route to school and morning commuters.
The incident comes shortly before an expected Middle East policy speech by President George Bush. And Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike are wondering if it may sway him further toward the arguments of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He is steadfastly against the idea of a Palestinian state now, on the grounds that terrorism must first be obliterated.
With a new cabinet, and a new interior minister, Abdul Razaq Yihya, the Palestinian Authority had been trying to shore up its image as a potential negotiating partner with Israel. But, flying in the face of statements by Mr. Yihya that suicide attacks harm the Palestinians, Hamas, which claimed respon- sibility for the attack, has left the PA's renewed image effort up in smoke.
According to reports from Washington, the president is weighing support for a "provisional" Palestinian state in areas already formally under PA control.
But analysts predict the attack's immediate fallout will be to facilitate Israel's diplomatic and military effort to snuff out hopes for a state or renewed negotiations. "Sharon will use this to the fullest," predicts Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. "He will argue with the Americans that they should alter Bush's speech and also take action on the ground to make sure any talk of a viable state is never implemented."
Mr. Sharon said at the scene of the carnage: "The terrible sights here are stronger than any words. It is interesting to know what kind of Palestinian state they mean. What Palestinian state?"
During his recent visit to Washington, Sharon argued that the Palestinians would be continuing terrorist attacks, and therefore there is no point in planning negotiations with them while violence continues. Education Minister Limor Livnat Tuesday raised again the idea of expelling Mr. Arafat, something the Bush administration has until now opposed. "It is one possibility, a way to ensure he is no longer there so that an alternative leadership can be dealt with," she said.
In Washington, Raymond Tanter, a National Security Council adviser in the first Bush administration, predicts the attack will speed up plans for Bush to deliver the speech, especially since there is concern that "Israel could choose to retaliate with force that would bury peace prospects."
"The president will see he has to seize the moment before Israel responds in such a fashion that makes his proposal irrelevant," Mr. Tanter says.
The terrible sights of the bombing will be emblazoned onto an already traumatized Israeli national psyche. They were witnessed close up by tow-truck driver Shlomi Calderon, who had just given the bus the right of way before an explosion lifted it off the road.
"All of the parts of the bus were blown away," he says, lying on a stretcher at Shaarei Zedek Hospital, where he is being treated for injuries from the blast. "I tried to take people off the bus, but I myself had to step back and calm down," he says. Inside the bus were students, including Arabs headed toward the teacher seminary where they studied. Suzanne Abdel-Rahman says one of them was unaccounted for and another, Wafa Hassanein, had been on the bus and was wounded in the head. "These bombs can hit anyone, Jews or Arabs," she says.
The blast resounded in the nearby prayer hall of the Raphael Spanien High School as pupils were about to finish their morning prayers. "We heard a huge explosion, and the synagogue shook," says 13-year-old Elhanan Shabat. "We heard a lot of ambulances, but we finished our prayers. We saw so many vehicles. Everyone was in trauma.... We did not have regular classes today, we read psalms in class."
Shabat says his summer vacation starts Friday, "but I'm afraid to go out, to go to an amusement park, to go anywhere because of the attacks."
Dr. Jarbawi, the Bir Zeit professor, argues that beyond condemning such attacks, which the PA did Tuesday, there is little it can do to stop them. He says the Palestinian security forces have been largely destroyed by recent Israeli invasions. Tuesday, Israeli forces assassinated a leader of the Al Aqsa Brigades militia, part of daily activity in PA areas.
"If Arafat can control anything, it is only Ramallah. There is no security apparatus anymore. There is no geographic contiguity. We are under siege," he says. "They destroy our security forces, then blame us for not stopping attacks, and then somehow, the world buys this."
A senior Israeli official said in a briefing on Monday, that "Arafat does nothing to stop terror, and, in fact, we are witnessing a reconstruction of terror, which is why we are obliged from time to time to penetrate the PA areas." In light of Palestinian attacks against Jewish settlements and soldiers in the Gaza Strip, a large-scale incursion there remains a possibility, he said.
Gideon Samet, a columnist for the daily Ha'aretz, said Tuesday: "Sharon does not think that a military track and a diplomatic track can go together. And he is using this level of violence by the Palestinians to put off any diplomatic movement."
He predicted, however, that Tuesday's bombing might not influence Bush's speech. "I don't believe things hinge on just one event. It's even possible that in the long term this will strengthen those in the administration who think that the deepening violence and bloodshed has got to be stopped," Mr. Samet said.
Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report from Washington.