Israel walks on political eggshells over terror response

JERUSALEM — Israel generally reacts swiftly to Palestinian terror attacks, but that was not the case this week.

On Tuesday — a day after 14 people were killed and more than 45 injured when a jeep laden with explosives plowed into a bus near Hadera in northern Israel — Israel had yet to retaliate.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer did his best to quash speculation that the United States was pressing Israel to restrain its response, saying Tuesday that Israel would respond when and how it deems right.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under growing pressure to prevent an escalation with the Palestinians as the United States seeks international support, including from moderate Arab countries, for a possible strike against Iraq.

Israel's interior minister, Eli Yishai, confirmed that Israel was taking U.S. interests into account as it contemplates its next move.

"There are those who say that we need to react now and immediately with all power and all force," Yishai told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday. "On the other hand, we could cause difficulties for the Americans. If the Americans attack Iraq, it's in our interest as well as that of the Americans."

On Wednesday, Israeli officials released the names of all those killed in Monday's attack.

They are: Osnat Abramov, 16, of Holon; Staff Sgt. Liat Ben-Ami, 20, of Haifa; Ofra Burger, 56, of Hod Hasharon; Cpl. Ilona Hanukayev, 20, of Hadera; Ashati Indelau, 50, of Hadera; Suad Jaber, 23, of Taiba; Iris Lavi, 68, of Netanya; Sgt.-Maj. Eliezer Moskovitch, 40, of Petach Tikva; Staff Sgt. Nir Nahum, 20, of Carmiel; Sgt. Esther Pisahov, 19, of Givat Olga; Staff Sgt. Aiman Sharuf, 20, of Usfiya; Sergei Shevchuk, 35, of Afula; Anat Shimshon, 34, of Ra'anana; and Cpl. Sharon Tubol, 19, of Arad.

Some 25 people wounded in the attack remained hospitalized Tuesday. Six of them, including a 2-year-old, were listed in serious condition.

Israeli officials blame the Palestinian Authority for the bombing, but political sources say the government is unlikely to respond this time by isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Analysts said Israel seemed unlikely to renew the sort of siege imposed on Arafat's Ramallah headquarters following a Sept. 19 suicide bombing in central Tel Aviv, which killed six people and wounded more than 50.

That siege revived popular support for Arafat and badly strained relations with the United States, which was trying to build international support for a possible attack on Iraq.

Following heavy U.S. pressure and criticism, Sharon called off the siege. Commentators then predicted that Arafat could count on a grace period from strong Israeli retaliation for terror attacks, at least until after the Iraqi crisis plays out.

Monday's attack came as Israel, urged on by U.S. officials, was making efforts to ease hardships on the Palestinian population and seeking ways to advance the diplomatic process.

Israeli police said the explosives-packed jeep apparently came from the Jenin area, three days after Israeli troops pulled out of the city and lifted its curfew.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently said Israel's dilemma is that as soon as it eases restrictions on the Palestinian populace, terrorists exploit the situation to carry out attacks.

Despite expectations, Israel did not re-impose blanket curfews across the West Bank in the wake of the latest bus bombing.

On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Force lifted curfews in Jenin, Ramallah and Nablus, but imposed them in Kalkilya and Tulkarm, according to Israel Radio. There were no curfews in Hebron and Bethlehem, the report said.

The military wing of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Monday's attack, saying it was revenge for the killing of eight Palestinians during clashes in the Gaza Strip last week.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres blamed the Palestinian Authority for the attack, saying it is doing nothing to fight terrorism.

"We know it may be impossible to prevent all acts of terror, but the least we expect is that the Palestinians really show an effort to stop it even if they did not organize it," Peres told Reuters television from Luxembourg, where he met with E.U. foreign ministers on Monday.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, who advocates hitting hard at the terrorist infrastructure, said the attack should surprise no one. He called on Israel to step up its pressure on all Palestinian terrorist centers.

"We have to look for all the terrorist infrastructures in all the Palestinian cities," Landau was quoted as saying by Army Radio.

According to reports, the No. 841 Egged bus had stopped to pick up passengers at Karkur junction when the jeep pulled alongside and blew up.

The massive fire that engulfed the bus hampered rescue efforts. Witnesses spoke of watching helplessly as people inside were burned alive.

Guy Yechiel, a witness, said he was traveling with a friend when he heard the explosion.

"It was huge, like something I'd never heard before," he told Israel's Channel Two Television. "We ran over to help the wounded. I saw a soldier lying on the ground, his hands were fluttering. I grabbed them and asked him, is he OK, does he need something. And then he just died.''

The method used in Monday's attack was similar to a June 5 bus bombing on the same road, in which a car bomb blew up beside a bus near Megiddo junction, killing 17 people.

Islamic Jihad also claimed responsibility for that attack.