The powerful car bomb that exploded next to a crowded rush-hour bus in northern Israel Wednesday killing at least 16 underscored for many Israelis the need for a security fence and for the removal of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat before there can be an end to 20 months of violence.
The bombing (one of the worst in terms of casualties) cast a pall over this weekend’s Camp David meeting at which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was to present President George W. Bush with his own Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. Bush then was to meet Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House.
It also overshadowed this week’s visit to Israel by CIA director George Tenet to discuss security reforms with Arafat and assess if the Palestinian leader has the ability or desire to end the violence.
Hours after the attack at the Megiddo Junction near Afula, Israeli troops and tanks moved back into Jenin in retaliation after Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, said the terrorist came from that West Bank city.
Arie Mekel, an Israeli government spokesman, pointed out that each time the United States sends a high level envoy to Israel, "he is greeted with terrorist attacks."
"The secretary of state was welcomed with an attack at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, [Middle East envoy Anthony] Zinni was, too, and now we see it with George Tenet, who saw Arafat [Tuesday]," said Mekel.
Islamic Jihad said it was timed to mark the 35th anniversary of the Six-Day War, during which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza.
Mekel said it was clearly a controlled attack designed by extremists to derail peace efforts at a time when "the Americans are trying to jump-start [them] by trying to convene a peace conference this summer. There are terrorists who are determined not to allow that."
Meanwhile, there were calls by some Israeli lawmakers and military leaders for Israel to reoccupy Palestinian cities until the security fence can be completed a year from now.
Among those calling for such a move was Education Minister Limor Livnat, who told Israel Radio: "There’s no doubt that so long as we lack any other solutions, there’s nearly no choice but to stay in Area A within the cities because the blockades and the pinpoint raids are not enough to prevent the attacks, of which today’s bombing is an example."
Echoing that sentiment was another Knesset member, Effie Eitam of the National Religious Party. In a recent interview with The Jewish Week, he took credit for encouraging the Israeli government to mount its six-week military offensive against the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. Wednesday’s bombing was the deadliest attack since that campaign, known as "Operation Defensive Shield."
"It took quite a long time to convince Arik [Sharon] that it was wrong to believe you can’t defeat terrorism, that you have to run away and build a wall," he said, adding that the Israel Defense Forces must remain in Palestinian-controlled areas for at least a year.
"Israel must not allow a wave of terror again," he said. "The IDF should be allowed to do anything and go everywhere to avoid it."
The head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, also pressed this week for a prolonged Israeli military incursion into areas under Palestinian control. Sharon, however, had insisted that brief incursions to go after specific targets would remain the government’s policy.
Mekel dismissed Palestinian statements condemning Wednesday’s bombing, saying: "The same people who send the terrorists later condemn them. … Arafat could make a difference if he dismantled the terrorist organizations, but he chooses to use terror while he remains in office and greets envoys who see him as a serious leader."
The bombing also served to punctuate Sharon’s argument that there can be no progress toward peace as long as Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinian Authority, according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.
"This is a view increasingly shared in Washington, and Tenet’s trip was a last-gasp effort to see if anything could be done with Arafat," he said.
Tenet was scheduled to return to Washington to be present at this weekend’s Bush-Mubarak talks. Mubarak reportedly planned to argue that Arafat should remain in charge until he can be eased into a ceremonial role next year. But Steinberg said Wednesdayís bombing would strengthen Sharon’s argument that Arafat must be removed immediately.
"Israelis can’t afford to put up with Arafat any longer," said Steinberg. "He has to go. They canít afford to wait until next year."
Sharon gave the green light this week to erect a 66-mile fence along one-third of the imaginary Green Line that separates Israel proper from the West Bank. Mekel said the area of Wednesdayís bombing is within the stretch to be walled in.
The fence, which is to stretch from Kfar Salem near Megiddo to Kafr Kassem, is to consist of a series of obstacles and link with fences and walls already in place or being built near Bat Hefer and Kalkilya. The area around Jerusalem, where Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods interlock, is already seeing the construction of fences, checkpoints and troop deployments.
But Mekel stressed that the fence is not going to provide a "bullet-proof jacket" that will keep out all terrorists.
Miriam Fierberg, the mayor of Netanya, which has suffered a dozen suicide attacks, agreed.
"I don’t think the solution is to surround ourselves by a wall," she said last week while visiting The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, L.I. "The solution must be by hitting the terrorist infrastructure. … The people of Netanya want to live in peace with their neighbors; I donít think they want to be surrounded by a wall."
Yehuda Gilad, the newest member of the Knesset from the Meimad Party, said the right wing in Israel is against the wall for fear it could later be considered Israel’s new border with a future Palestinian state. And he said a wall does not provide protection from Katyusha rockets or missiles.
"It is best only for suicide bombers, so there is a lot of doubt about it," Gilad said during an interview at The Jewish Week. "And by creating a fence, people have to understand that they are creating two different entities and two different levels of security: one for Israelis in Israel and for Israelis in the settlements."
He added that although Israel would claim the fence is only a military barrier and not a border, it will in fact "create a border, a point you can’t ignore when you speak of borders in the future."
Raphaella Segal, a founding member of Kedumim, one of the first Israeli settlements in the West Bank, said it would be impractical to erect a fence around her settlement, which consists of 10 outposts stretching over three miles. Palestinians from a nearby village daily approach the settlement to tend to an olive grove carved out of a western section of the settlement.
Segal said that at the recommendation of the Israeli army, Kedumim is installing security cameras to maintain surveillance of the area.
Wednesday’s bombing occurred on the Wadi Ara Road as the Tel Aviv to Tiberias bus carrying a large number of soldiers was passing the Megiddo Prison at about 7:15 a.m. Authorities said the driver of the car bomb edged next to the gas tank of the bus before detonating the explosives, which then caused the bus to blow up.
The bus reportedly was hurled into the air and rolled over before righting itself and catching fire, burning alive those in the back, including a man and a woman found in an embrace.
Several people in the front of the bus managed to escape, including the driver, Mickey Harel, who said he had narrowly escaped several other suicide bombings.
The military wing of Islamic Jihad said the terrorist who carried out the attack was from Jenin, 10 miles east of the carnage. Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp is the stronghold of Islamic Jihad and was the scene of the heaviest fighting during Israelís recent military offensive.
Colette Avital, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, this week called on State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg to issue an independent report on allegations that the Israel Defense Forces prevented injured Palestinians from receiving medical help.
"She demanded that the allegations be checked because various human rights organizations and the United Nations said … doctors were not being allowed into the camp and the wounded were not allowed to be taken out," said her spokeswoman, Gon Kafri.
Goldberg said he would study a report the IDF is preparing before determining whether an independent investigation was warranted.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week submitted to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan a 150-page report designed to counter what it said were false allegations regarding the military operation in Jenin.
"We are absolutely convinced of the restraint and concern for civilian life and property manifested by the Israel Defense Forces in the face of unrestrained terror and violence," the group said in a cover letter to Annan.