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Analysis: Palestinian Attack on Israeli Bus Near West Bank Settlement

Morning Edition: July 17, 2002

Middle East Conflict



BOB EDWARDS, host:

Israeli troops today launched a major search operation for those involved in yesterday's attack on a bus near the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel. Eight people died in the attack, including a baby born prematurely. At least one Palestinian was killed in today's operation. According to reports from the scene, an Israeli soldier also was shot. The bus attack was the worst such incident in a month. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Jerusalem.

What more do you know about this manhunt?

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Well, the Israeli army says that an hourlong gun battle took place in the early-morning hours, between 4 and 5 local time, not far from where the ambush occurred yesterday. Both sides took casualties when they exchanged fire. The Israeli defense forces say one gunman, identified as a Palestinian militant, was killed.

Israelis say there were two armed men in that exchange; the second one managed to escape. The army believes another one or two were also involved in yesterday's attack. They fled over the desert terrain there, and they are also still at large and the hunt goes on.

As you pointed out, Bob, the death toll also rose from seven to eight overnight when a pregnant passenger on the bus was forced to have an emergency delivery. That baby has died. Three generations of one family were among the victims, who were residents of the settlement of Emmanuel.

A number of armed Palestinian groups have vied to take responsibility. It does seem to have the earmarks of an earlier attack, seven months ago, in the same settlement, around the same settlement. In that case, it was the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that claimed responsibility. That attack prompted the switch to armored buses near Emanuel. But yesterday raises questions of the safety of ferrying Israeli civilians around the West Bank, even in armored vehicles.

EDWARDS: Any indication Israel's planning some larger response?

McCARTHY: Well, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own quartet--Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the defense minister, the finance minister--are deliberating that very thing today. The attack has postponed a meeting between the two sides, which could go ahead tomorrow after the funerals. So far, Israel has refrained from any kind of military retaliation. The Israeli press, citing sources inside the prime minister's office, say a serious military strike is unlikely because Israel does not want to torpedo US efforts to win European, UN and Russian backing for American calls to reform the Palestinian Authority, which, as we have just heard, is under way in New York. And Sharon's office says this latest attack corroborates the need for those reforms.

EDWARDS: Have Palestinian officials said anything about the bus attack?

McCARTHY: Well, the Palestinian Authority condemned it, and, of course, debate is rising within the Palestinian community about what these attacks really achieve. The PA also said yesterday that it opposed all attacks against civilians, Israeli and Palestinian. Unarmed Palestinians have been shot and killed during this latest Israeli deployment in the Palestinian territories, in retribution for a spate of suicide bombings in June. So the West Bank bloodshed is part of life for both sides. The question the Israeli government must be asking is how militant gunmen managed to breach all this elaborate security Israel has thrown up.

EDWARDS: Well, exactly. I mean, with Israeli forces basically shutting down the West Bank, it has to raise some questions about the effectiveness of the clampdown.

McCARTHY: As far as shattering any sort of assurances that the Israelis might have had that this big military presence was achieving a certain amount of success, I don't think it's done that. I think this attack provides a justification for the Israeli army to remain deployed in the West Bank in large numbers. A spokesman for Sharon's office said until the Palestinians use security services to, quote, "eradicate terrorism," Israel will have to be deployed in those areas to stop what he considers a wave of terrorist activity.

Now, interestingly, top military officials were concluding just before yesterday's attack that the current mass deployment in the West Bank had put a lid on attacks, as one official said. But even retired military officials say there's no military solution here. The only solution is a political one, and in an attempt to relieve the heavy clamp on the Palestinian population, curfews are still being lifted during the day in most major West Bank towns. A USAID fund study indicated that malnutrition among Palestinian children is rising. These questions are being looked at. The cost of the war has become a very central question, both for the Quartet in New York and for the parties here.

EDWARDS: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Jerusalem.

The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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