A window of relative quiet in Israel was shattered Thursday when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus traveling down a busy boulevard around lunchtime, killing five people and wounding more than 50. In response, Israeli tanks moved on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank compound in Ramallah. Palestinian officials said two guards were injured in the incursion.
The suicide explosion set back even the most minute of hopes that Israelis and Palestinians were ready to start looking for a way out of the violent spiral they have been caught up in since the peace process that defined their relationship throughout the 1990s gave way to the intifada.
Almost as disturbing as the carnage across this Tel Aviv boulevard is the air of fatalism that seems to hang in the air long after the acrid smell of a suicide bombing blows away. Many Israelis, some of them rattled beyond repair by the suicide bombings, can see no better option than to hit back harder at the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Palestinians, living an almost lifeless existence under Israeli curfews and closures that have kept many people from the most basic semblance of everyday life, accuse Israel of closing every road that might lead back to the negotiating table.
Palestinians said that the relative lull in major attacks in the past six weeks should count for something - and be accepted by Israel as an indication of goodwill. But Israeli police officials dismissed that argument, saying that it hasn't been for lack of trying on the part of Palestinian militant groups, but rather, good intelligence work on the part of Israel which allowed police to foil other bomb plots.
Neither side sees the other making an effort to find a way out of the stalemate, and with no view toward moving forward, things here "are always one bombing away," as one Western diplomat in Tel Aviv put it, from a giant leap backward.
It was the third time Allenby Street has been targeted since the Palestinians resumed their intifada, or uprising, against Israel two years ago. Molly and David Zrifin had renamed their cafe Makom HaPitzuz - "The Place of the Bombing" - after it was targeted a year-and-a-half ago. Though her husband had a heart attack at the time, Molly Zrifin says they decided to rebuild and rename, to show that they wouldn't be defeated by terrorists.
This time, pieces of the explosion landed in their salad bar and had Molly Zrifin promising to give up on the country altogether.
"I love this country, but it's too much," she rambled nervously. "It's so hard for me. I'm not worried for me, I'm worried about my son."
Josephina Rabinovich, a storeowner nearby, slammed Israel's courts for putting restrictions on deportations of Palestinians who are family members of suicide bombings. "This is what we've seen as a result," she says. Her husband, Zvi, said no numbing of bombings would change Israel's resolve. "Nothing they do will force us to leave. We've been going through this for 52 years."
Amid the pandemonium and ensuing clean-up that has become a darkly familiar scene, a man cleaned up the bloody streets with rags - later to be buried. "Every human being is a world unto himself," says Yaakov Weiss, a volunteer who works in an agency that identifies victims of disaster. "Each person here was a world, a family, its children. An entire world has been destroyed here."
Another world was lost yesterday in the West Bank city Ramallah, where a Palestinian boy was shot dead, apparently after stoning a tank. Palestinians there say many people have lost all hope of reconciliation with Israel, making it ever harder to convince Palestinians that a cessation of attacks against Israel is worthwhile.
"I think that people are in a situation where their lives are disrupted, and I don't even think that they think about these operations [against Israelis] anymore," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah. "I think they have reached a level of apathy regarding these situations. People are under curfew, students not going to schools, and the economic situation is disrupted - so who cares anymore? People don't see anyway out.
"What is the recipe for ending all of this? [Prime Minister Ariel] sharon is saying you have to stop terrorism. For the past month nothing happened," says Jarbawi. He says that Palestinians should have declared an all-out truce, rather than expecting to get credit for one after the lull in attacks.
"If there is a reciprocal process, then we can start talking," he says. "If we say you take this step you take that one. But where is this process? Whatever we are offering, it is not enough."
Israeli officials, however, says that their attempts to ease Palestinians suffering has failed.
"Every time we lift the curfew or restrictions to ease the conditions, what we get is a slap in the face," says Sharon's spokesman, Dr. Ranaan Gissin. " We lifted it in some places, and we see what we got."
Before this week, there had been no suicide bombings in Israel since Aug. 4. The renewed attacks came a day after Israel rejected a Palestinian proposal for a two-stage truce. Israel said the Palestinian offer to halt attacks in Israel proper during the first phase implied Palestinians still would feel free to strike Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
President Bush said he strongly condemned the back-to-back suicide bombings. "We continue to send our message to the good people of that region that if you're interested in peace, if you want people to grow up in a peaceful world, all parties must do everything they can to reject and stop violence," Bush said at a meeting in the Oval Office.
After Thursday's blast, Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab told The Associated Press he expected to see "a series of operations against the Zionist enemy, as a result of the daily brutal crimes against our people." But he stopped short of claiming responsibility.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.