All Things Considered: August 19, 2003

Suicide Bomber Strikes Jerusalem Bus


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Jerusalem today at least 18 people are dead and more than a hundred wounded after a suicide bombing tore a bus apart on a busy downtown street. Several children were among those killed. Two rival Palestinian Islamist organizations, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack. The political consequences were immediate. Israel froze talks on the handover of four West Bank cities to Palestinian control. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Jerusalem.

PETER KENYON reporting:

The blast was heard in both West and East Jerusalem, and the first eyewitnesses described a gruesome scene. They said the number two bus was severely damaged and bodies and body parts were strewn across the street in a Jewish neighborhood not far from the Mea Shearim ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Police described it as a large bomb relatively detonated on board a double-length bus. There was another bus behind that was also damaged. Blood-soaked young children were led into waiting ambulances. Police said an unspecified number of children were among the dead, and some very young children, toddlers, were among the seriously wounded. Baby strollers were found among the wreckage.

The number of wounded rapidly escalated through the evening. It's possible the death toll will rise higher. Some of these injuries are described as life-threatening.

SIEGEL: Peter, this number two bus, I gather, goes from the Old City and near the Western Wall actually to Mea Shearim.

KENYON: That's right. And it's a very popular route. This, of course, was well after the rush hour, but this bus was, in fact, packed. It's a route that comes from the Old City not far from the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, and it often carries a number of the Jewish faithful. All of which raises the question: How did a Palestinian bomber get on board this particular bus? There is one report from Israeli television quoting police, saying they're exploring the theory that the bomber may have been disguised as a religious Jew. Such disguises have been used in the past.

Among the immediate reactions, US Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Israeli foreign minister, and he called it a terrible day for supporters of peace in the Mideast.

SIEGEL: What do people there make of these two competing claims from both Islamic Jihad and Hamas?

KENYON: It's difficult to say anything definitive except that Hamas has released a videotape showing a young man purported to be the bomber, a young man from Hebron. That may prove to be the stronger claim. It's impossible to tell at this hour.

Both organizations said it was revenge for the killing of members of their respective organizations by the Israeli military. Israeli officials don't accept this revenge notion. They don't like to hear comparisons between Israeli military raids and pursuit of wanted Palestinians compared with deliberate Palestinian attacks on civilians. But they say even as a retaliatory strike this bombing was hugely disproportionate, and it's hard to imagine this not having some serious consequences.

SIEGEL: Now beyond the freeze on the talks, I assume people are assessing the damage right now to progress on the road map to peace. This is not a very bright moment for that peace process.

KENYON: Not at all. And one of the issues in those talks on handing over four West Bank cities was, in fact, the issue of checkpoints outside the cities. The Palestinians wanted them removed, and the Israelis, of course, say that they're essential to try and slow the movement at least of suicide bombers such as this. Of course, there's no confirmation on what route was actually taken by the bomber today.

Beyond that, there's strong cries in the Israeli Cabinet likely to come for a powerful response, although there will also be pressure to try and keep the road map for peace alive. Israel has grown increasingly frustrated with Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' insistence that he can't confront the armed factions.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Peter.

NPR's Peter Kenyon on today's bus bombing in Jerusalem.

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