June 11, 2003
Posted at: 10:55 a.m. CDT
JERUSALEM - A suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in downtown Jerusalem on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people and wounding nearly 70, police said. An hour later, Israel dispatched helicopters to Gaza City, killing two Hamas officials and at least five other people.
President Bush condemned the Jerusalem bombing, which came after the Islamic militant group vowed revenge for a botched missile attack Tuesday that wounded a senior political leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
The bombing "is a message to all the Zionist criminals that they are not safe and that the Palestinian fighters are capable of reaching them everywhere," said Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, who stopped short of claiming direct responsibility.
The explosion went off during afternoon rush hour on city bus No. 14 on Jaffa Street, Jerusalem's main thoroughfare, near Mahane Yehuda, an outdoor market that repeatedly has been targeted by Palestinian militants.
Paramedics and police reported that 15 people were in serious condition.
The blast blew out windows and tore a large hole into the left side of the red-and-white bus, peeling back its roof. The bus had just left Jerusalem's nearby central bus station when the explosion occurred.
"I heard a blast ... Then I heard people yelling and running in the direction of the explosion, screaming `attack,'" said Ofir Alon, who witnessed the bombing from a nearby street corner.
The Israeli retaliation came an hour later.
Witnesses said an Israeli Apache helicopter fired two missiles at a car stuck in a traffic jam in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah and then fired again after a group of people gathered around the stricken vehicle.
Two bodies were taken out of the car, one decapitated. The dead included members of Hamas' military wing, Tito Massoud, 35, and Soffil Abu Nahez, 29. Five other people were also killed.
Bush, who a day earlier upbraided Israel for the attack on Rantisi, was informed about Wednesday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem as he traveled on his Marine One helicopter into Chicago for a speech.
"The president condemns the attack in the strongest possible terms," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was unapologetic about the attempt to kill Rantisi despite Bush's reprimand that the attack made it harder for the Palestinian prime minister to fight terrorism.
The increasing cycle of violence jeopardized the "road map," a U.S.-backed plan for peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005. Bush has invested his presidential prestige in the initiative, formally launching it with Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at a summit last week in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba.
"We will make no concessions to terror," Sharon told his Cabinet on Wednesday, according to a government official. "We made this clear to all the White House officials and to the Palestinians before the Aqaba summit."
Separately, Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, renewed truce efforts Wednesday in a long-shot mission aimed at persuading Hamas to halt violence.
Suleiman arrived in the West Bank town of Ramallah for another attempt to negotiate a truce.
He carried a message from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he is willing to host cease-fire talks between Palestinian leaders and militia groups. Suleiman renewed an earlier Egyptian proposal that Hamas and the other militants agree to a one-year truce. The armed groups have rebuffed the offer in the past.
Hamas opposes the peace plan. Last week, Hamas broke off talks with Abbas on laying down arms and, along with two other militias, killed five soldiers in shooting attacks over the weekend. After Tuesday's missile strike, Hamas threatened bloody revenge.
"I swear we will not leave one Jew in Palestine," Rantisi said after he was treated at a Gaza hospital for his wounds. "We will fight them with all our might."
Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide bomb attacks in Israel, killing more than 300 people.
Abbas denounced the missile strike as terrorism, appealed to the United States to intervene, and said he would keep trying to reach an understanding with Hamas and other militias. Abbas opposes a crackdown on the armed group, saying there is no substitute for dialogue and that he will not risk a civil war.
After the Rantisi attack, it appeared unlikely Hamas would agree to a cease-fire.
Suleiman met with Abbas and veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for about two hours and asked Arafat if he wanted Egypt to continue trying to mediate the truce talks. Arafat said yes, according to Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to the Palestinian leader.
Suleiman did not plan to meet with Hamas leaders, according to Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian Cabinet minister.
Abbas has been unequivocal in his condemnation of violence against Israel, while Arafat has been more ambiguous and stands accused by Israel and the United States of involvement in terrorism.
After the meeting, Arafat stood with Abbas in a show of cooperation between the two leaders. Arafat said Palestinian officials planned to meet again with Hamas officials.
"We will have a very important meeting with our brothers (in Hamas)," he said.
Arafat called Rantisi after the missile strike and congratulated him on surviving a "criminal assassination attempt," the Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.