A bearded young Palestinian man, chewing gum and wearing a jacket, boarded a bus full of Arabs and Jews in northern Israel Wednesday morning, paid his $2.60 fare and then triggered a thunderous explosion, killing seven people and himself and injuring 27.
At one moment Bus No. 823 was on its normal morning run from Tel Aviv to Nazareth, carrying sleepy soldiers and civilians to their bases and jobs just after 7 a.m. At the next moment it was a blackened, mangled wreck, split practically in two, a rolling charnel house spattered with blood and body parts and spewing smoke and flames.
The suicide bombing further undercut a troubled peace mission by the American special Mideast envoy, Anthony Zinni, who is trying to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward a cease-fire after 18 months of fighting and terrorist attacks.
Nonetheless, Zinni brokered a scheduled meeting of Israeli and Palestinian security chieftains late Wednesday. Israel Radio reported that the meeting ended without agreement on a truce and that another session would be held in the coming days.
Four of the seven people killed on the bus were Israeli soldiers. The other victims, dead and wounded, included Jews as well as Arabs.
The radical group Islamic Jihad, which has carried out a string of terrorist attacks on Israelis, took responsibility for the bombing and identified the bomber as a 24-year-old militant from the northern West Bank city of Jenin, Rafat Abu Diyak.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed the attack on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and suggested Israel would retaliate. "We see that Arafat has not changed his policy of terror," he said. "He has taken no steps whatsoever, he has given no orders at all (to halt Palestinian attacks). This is something very grave, and we'll have to take the necessary measures."
Arafat's Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing. But the authority's statement seemed to focus on the fact that the attack took place inside Israel _ suggesting implicitly that attacks on Jewish soldiers and settlers in the Palestinian territories were not covered by the condemnation. "World public opinion, which has been on the Palestinians' side against the Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians, will never accept Palestinians attacking Israelis inside Israel," said the statement. "We can't give any excuse to extremists in Israel to continue their aggression against our people."
The bombing took place near the large Israeli Arab town of Um-el-Fahm, in Israel's heavily Arab Galilee region. The bomber boarded the bus and said he was going to Afula, a Jewish town in the north. He walked toward a group of soldiers seated toward the back of the bus, immediately attracting the suspicions of Jewish and Arab passengers.
"I know they don't care who they hit," Kamla Massalha, an Arab citizen of Israel who is a surgical nurse, told Israel Radio. "He didn't look normal. He looked around, he looked left and right and there was something under his jacket, around his waist. I suspected him right away. A second later, the explosion came."
At least one Israeli soldier on the bus also took note of the bomber when he boarded. "I noticed that he had a jacket and when he sat down, I saw something inside," said Vadim Weinfuss, an Israeli soldier who was on his way to an army base. "I went to get my rifle, to try to stop him, and I saw that he was talking to someone who was sitting next to him. I was going to shoot him when he blew up."
The bus continued rolling for some distance, even though it was on fire and nearly everyone aboard, including the driver, was dead or injured from shrapnel, shock or flying glass.
"The explosion was tremendous, tremendous. And then people started screaming and people were on fire," said Avi Malul, who was sitting two seats behind the bomber but somehow survived. "I grabbed my gun and jumped out the window. And I saw bodies on the ground."
Vice President Dick Cheney, who returned to Washington on Wednesday after a trip to the Middle East, probably will try again as a peacemaker, returning for a meeting in Egypt with Arafat _ assuming Zinni concludes that the conditions are right. The meeting could come as early as Monday.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.