JERUSALEM // At least one person was reported killed and nearly 30 others wounded yesterday after a bomb exploded at a bus stop crowded with afternoon commuters in Jerusalem’s predominantly Jewish west side.
The attack comes amid escalating barrages of rocket fire and missile strikes exchanged between Israel’s military and militants operating in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
It was not immediately clear if the two events were related. No one has claimed responsibility for the bus bombing, the first of its kind to strike this conflict-prone city in seven years.
Speaking to reporters on the scene, Israel’s police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, called it “terror attack”, a reference in Israel to Palestinians, who carried out dozens of bus and suicide bombings after the start of the second intifada in 2000.
Aharon Franco, Jerusalem’s police chief, told the Associated Press that there were no concrete leads but that authorities were investigating links to a small bombing in the city this month.
Israel’s internal security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, said on Channel 2 television that yesterday’s bomb, weighing between one and two kilos, “exploded in a small suitcase on the sidewalk next to the bus stop”.
The force of the blast shook neighbouring buildings and tore through the windows of bus number 74, which was on its way to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa. Shards of glass and pools of blood marred the asphalt around the blast site, located next to Jerusalem’s central bus station. Dozens of police cordoned off the area as emergency responders could be seen carting the injured on stretchers shortly after the 3pm attack.
The city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, made an appearance at the scene later in the afternoon in an attempt to calm nerves, telling journalists that Jerusalem was “in fact one of the safest places in the world”.
Despite his assurances, many appeared rattled by the violence. The last bus bombing in Jerusalem was in 2004.
Dozens of onlookers nervously crowded around the police cordon. Officers searched vehicles in the surrounding areas with sniffer dogs, breaking in to some to inspect for more explosives.
One visibly traumatised woman who said she witnessed the explosion sat motionless on a nearby street curb, barely able to speak, her knees tucked against her chest in a fetal-like position.
Seth Musi, 25, who works in marketing, said he was on his way to the bus station when the attack happened. “I think this is ludicrous, killing people on buses,” he said.
While not naming them, he suggested that Palestinians bore responsibility. “These are the people we have to make peace with,” he said. “It’s just impossible – there’s no solution.”
Others demanded revenge. “I want to kill Arabs,” said Kobe Bar, a 24-year-old mechanic watching the events unfold. “Now!”
Also at the racially charged scene were large crowds of Israel's concervative ultra-orthodox community, distinctive in their black attire, yelling out: "Death to Arabs!"
Palestinian officials in the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority (PA) were quick to condemn the attack. Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, was quoted by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, as calling it a “terrorist operation” that he condemned “in the strongest terms, regardless of which party standing behind it”.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, who is currently traveling in Russia, also condemned the attack, the news agency reported. He also issued a similar condemnation of Israel’s military strikes in Gaza on Tuesday, which killed eight Palestinians and injured scores more.
Gaza militants barraged southern Israel with rockets and mortars yesterday, drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised decisive action against militants and suggested that future operations would not be surgical.
“No state would tolerate ongoing rocket fire on its cities and its citizens, and the state of Israel obviously will not tolerate it,” Mr Netanyahu told parliament.
A text message from Gaza’s Hamas rulers said the territory’s prime minister had been in contact with militant factions trying to keep the postwar truce from unravelling. But in the meantime, the Gaza interior ministry announced that it had evacuated security installations and scaled back the number of security forces on the street to lessen their risk of becoming targets.
The Islamic Jihad militant group said it fired rockets at four Israeli cities to avenge Israel’s killing of eight militants and civilians in Gaza the day before. The group said one of its fighters was killed yesterday in an Israeli airstrike, and Israeli police said an Israeli civilian was wounded by rocket shrapnel in southern Israel’s largest city, Beersheba.
A small faction allied with Gaza’s ruling Hamas group claimed responsibility for a volley of mortars that struck Israel.
The killing of three children and their uncle on Tuesday in what Israel called an errant shelling, dramatically escalated the violence.
Dozens of weeping women dressed in black gathered at the house of three of the victims. Pieces of flesh stuck to the outer wall of the house, which was pocked by shrapnel.
The civilians and the militants killed Tuesday were buried in a joint funeral in Gaza City. Dozens of armed men, including relatives, fired in the air as the bodies were brought out, chanting “God is Great” and “Revenge, revenge.”
Israel and Hamas have largely observed a truce since the Israeli military offensive in Gaza ended in January 2009. But with the cease-fire fraying in the past week, Mr Netanyahu threatened to respond vigorously to the stepped-up attacks from Gaza.
“It’s possible that blows will be exchanged, it’s possible it will continue for some time. But we are very resolved to strike at terror elements and block their ability to hurt our citizens.”
Mr Netanyahu did not elaborate. But Israel Radio reported that he planned to huddle with security officials to discuss strategy.
Earlier in the day, the Israeli Home Front Minister Matan Vilnai predicted that a military confrontation with Hamas was “only a matter of time.”
“We are taking all appropriate steps in this direction,” Mr Vilnai told Army Radio.
The Hamas text message said Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had made a round of calls to militant leaders, including Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shalah, trying to defuse the violence.
Both Israel and Hamas are thought to be reluctant to engage in another war, after the 2009 conflict killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and heavily damaged thousands of homes and businesses. Thirteen Israelis also died, and Israel’s image was badly tarnished by allegations of war crimes that the Israeli government denies.
But although the war inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, the Iranian-backed group has replenished its arsenal with bigger and better weapons.
Last week, Israel intercepted a cargo ship that it said was loaded with sophisticated anti-ship missiles and other arms sent from Tehran to Gaza.
Over the weekend, Gaza militants launched their heaviest mortar barrage against Israel in years, after an Israeli airstrike, stoking a new round of violence.
The mortar shells fired on Saturday were the same type as those intercepted last week on the cargo ship, Israel says.
With Associated Press