Israelis were shaken this week by another bus bombing that killed 13, the fear of civil war after militant settlers clashed with police and soldiers, and the Health Ministry’s recommendation that the entire population be immediately vaccinated against smallpox in the event of an Iraqi attack.
In Monday’s suicide bombing, two teenage members of Islamic Jihad from the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin rammed their jeep into the rear of a public bus midway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, engulfing the two vehicles and two nearby cars in flames.
It was the second time Islamic Jihad has used an explosives-laden vehicle to blow up an Israeli bus and represents a new and more deadly terror tactic, observers said.
On June 5, 17 people were killed in a similar attack near Megiddo, 15 miles away. And on Sept. 5, police foiled another attempted bombing when they tracked down a car loaded with 1,300 pounds of explosives, one of the largest caches ever recovered in Israel.
An Islamic Jihad official told the Associated Press that its members started employing this tactic after seeing that “Israel’s security measures were keeping people [suicide bombers] off buses.”
“We found that with the cars, we could load them with explosives and harm many people,” he said.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, pointed out that the car attacks “are far more lethal and [cause destruction] over a greater radius … than homicide bombers who normally carry 10 or 20 kilograms of explosives.”
He said Israel’s response would be to clamp down on Palestinian movement in Jenin and Nablus, two cities from which the most recent terror attacks have originated. Gold pointed out that an Israeli-imposed curfew in Jenin had been lifted for humanitarian reasons only two days before Monday’s attack.
“The minute Israel lifted the curtain, Palestinian organizations immediately exploited it,” Gold said.
Investigators reportedly believe the Palestinian bombers managed to evade Israeli roadblocks and a trench surrounding much of Jenin by using a dirt road used by workers constructing the fence designed to seal off the West Bank from Israel proper.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a Knesset member from the Meimad Party, said the attack reinforces the need to quickly erect the fence.
“That is the only way to stop these kind of attacks,” he said.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Tuesday that he intends to authorize the construction of an additional approximately 250 miles of security fence and that next week it might be possible to view the first sections of fence in place.
The defense ministry’s director-general, Amos Yaron, said 300 pieces of heavy machinery are at work on the project and that the first parts should become operational in February. The first phase of the project is slated to be completed in July at a cost of $165 million.
Although the use of suicide vehicles complicates the mission of Israel’s security forces, such vehicles can be stopped, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“They need a particular type of vehicle” to carry such large quantities of explosives, he pointed out. “And it is not easy to get out of Palestinian cities. The response is to tighten up even more on the movement of vehicles.”
Although there was a security vehicle following the bus that was blown up Monday, Steinberg pointed out that its occupants were looking for suicide bombers who might attempt to board the bus and not car bombers.
“For every Israeli response, there is a change in Palestinian strategy” and vice versa, Steinberg observed. “There is no ultimate weapon, and this is a relatively small group that is harder to find. It doesn’t have many branches and they don’t use phones, so it is harder to pick them up.”
Israeli security forces reportedly believe that Iyad Sawalha, 30, an explosives expert, is the man responsible for the car bombings. Sawalha has eluded Israeli assassination attempts.
Since the Palestinian violence began two years ago, 30 members of Islamic Jihad have reportedly been killed by Israeli forces and another 20 have died in terror attacks. And since Oct. 6, there have been 49 specific terror warnings, including one derailed by a Tel Aviv security guard. Twenty-five other attacks were prevented by the arrest of the Palestinian terrorists and in two attacks, the terrorists were killed before they could carry out their plans.
Israel did not immediately respond militarily out of deference to the United States, according to Interior Minister Eli Yishai. He told Army Radio that a swift and forceful response “could cause difficulties for the Americans” as they seek to assemble support for a possible military action against Iraq.
Gold told The Jewish Week: “Israel is aware of the regional situation with respect to wider American interests and we share them with the U.S. We will proceed with caution but do what is necessary to protect our civilians.
“The war against Israel is constant. Israel operates on pinpoint intelligence to identify those in attacks against it and to prevent them from achieving their goals,” he said.
There was speculation also that Israel did not retaliate because of Wednesday’s visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns, who is in the region to get Arab and Israeli reaction to a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement crafted by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.
Sharon, who was handed a six-page draft of the proposal during his visit to the White House last week, said Tuesday evening that he had problems with the plan and preferred the vision outlined by President George W. Bush on June 24.
“We have to stick to what was agreed in Washington regarding the Bush plan,” Sharon reportedly told a visiting group from the Anti-Defamation League. “It is of utmost importance that any progress to each stage be conditioned to the implementation of the previous stage. All progress has to be conditioned to determined action against terror and incitement. If that doesn’t happen, it will be impossible to move toward a demilitarized state without final borders.”
He added: “There is a danger Israel will face a timetable that only it is required to keep to.”
The plan calls for Israel to withdraw to pre-intifada lines, dismantle illegal outposts and end military action in Palestinian-controlled areas. The Palestinians are required to name a prime minister — something Palestinian President Yasir Arafat has vowed not to do until after there is a Palestinian state — unify their security forces into one, and reinstate security coordination and cooperation with Israel.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio Wednesday that the plan was only a draft and that Israel is expected to submit a response by December.
Meanwhile, because of the threat of a biological terrorist or missile attack from Iraq, Israel’s Health Ministry said this week that it favored the immediate vaccination of the entire population against smallpox.
Although there are fears about side effects from the vaccine, the ministry said it was better to inoculate everyone now rather than to attempt to do so when the threat of an attack is imminent.
The ministry’s director-general, Dr. Boaz Lev, said he was leaving it up to Sharon to make the final decision.
Settlers, Police Clash
These developments occurred as security was tightened around Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister, amid fears that right-wing extremists might try to harm him after he ordered the dismantling of illegal settlements in the West Bank.
The attempt to dismantle one, Gilad Farms, about six miles from Nablus, led to a violent clash last weekend between settlers, police and soldiers that reportedly left 43 policeman slightly injured — another 12 required medical treatment. Seventeen soldier and 19 setters also sustained injuries. Fifteen settlers were arrested.
In the past few weeks, 21 outposts have been dismantled and Ben-Eliezer said Monday that he was determined to see another 30 removed, including one rebuilt at Gilad Farms just hours after it had been dismantled.
Americans for Peace Now pointed out that soldiers and police went to Gilad Farms without any weapons, clubs or riot gear and were met by bug spray, kerosene, heating fuel, and sharpened ninjas or metal barbs.
Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion and a board member of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group for Israeli settlements, said the violence was committed by “100 to 200 youngsters who do not listen to anyone or the rabbis or the leaders — nobody.”
“I was there with my colleagues from the Yesha Council and they shouted at us that we are criminals and traitors,” he said. “Some even threatened to hit us because of the situation. I tell you frankly, in all of the discussions of the Yesha Council, we have said that if the price of uprooting [settlements] will be violence against soldiers and policemen, we are not going to resist. The most important thing is the unity of the Jewish people. Unfortunately these youngsters didn’t care about anything.”
Asked about the comments of a rabbi who was quoted as having encouraged soldiers not to obey orders to remove the settlers, Goldstein said: “If you want to serve in the army and you are a soldier, you must obey commands. If you want to live in a democratic state, you must obey democratic decisions. What happened there was bad. I don’t think any rabbi can call on followers to disobey orders, even if it is very painful for us.”
Rabbi Gilad, the Knesset member, said rabbis across the political spectrum “condemned very strongly rabbis who use Torah to justify a refusal to obey orders. They are using halacha [Jewish law] as a political tool. It’s against Torah to break the law because that endangers the state, and without law there would be total anarchy.”
Raphaela Segal, an assistant to the mayor of the Jewish settlement of Kedumim two miles from Gilad Farms, said that although she agrees that “we mustn’t raise a hand against any soldier,” the order to dismantle the outpost using soldiers brought in on the Sabbath was politically motivated by Ben-Eliezer.
“Ben-Eliezer is in competition in the Labor Party [for party leader] and he had to do something to win him support,” she said. “Everybody knows it; this is the background to everything.”
Segal said the conflict occurred because settlers saw troops moving in on the Sabbath and believed the government had broken a pledge to allow them to remain there during the day to work in the fields but not at night.
“We feel that holding onto the land in these places is a wall to stop the attempt to dismantle other places,” she said. “It’s a test case. They will think twice before they dismantle [other settlements]. This is a very small one; next time it might be one established five years ago with many families living there.”