Conflict & Justice

Will terror return to Israel?


A bus exploded with passengers on board on Nov. 21, 2012 in central Tel Aviv, Israel.


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JERUSALEM ― News of Wednesday's bus bombing in Tel Aviv hit Jerusalem morning shoppers hard. In Machaneh Yehuda, the capital's central market, considered a barometer of the national mood, the rumor coursed among the stalls like an electric current.

A baker sipping coffee, his hands caulked with dough, said, "I guess I won't make the spelt this Friday ― no one will come," to someone on the other end of his call.

A bejeweled Russian-speaking retiree insistently inquired of her companion, "Azrieli? Arlozorov? Central Bus Station?" ― all Tel Aviv landmarks that were mentioned in the initial reports of a bombing.

Two air raid sirens in a single week of operation Pillar of Defense didn't raise so much as an eyebrow among the weathered denizens of Jerusalem. But hearing of a bus bombing, even 37 miles down the road, exposed a raw nerve.

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"Shit!" exclaimed a 19-year old, spontaneous and alert. "Are they happening again?"

Before Wednesday turned into the day of the American-brokered ceasefire, it was the day another bus blew up for people for whom the memories of buses blowing up are still close to the surface.

Four bus bombings in a single week in late February and early March of 1996, resulting in more than 50 deaths, are widely understood to have helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win his first race for office. At the time Netanyahu was running against the peace platform candidate Shimon Peres, who had inherited the post from the murdered Yitzhak Rabin. Peres, now president, a non partisan and largely ceremonial role in Israel, kept his silence this Wednesday.

American diplomats have always been involved. For many Jerusalemites, the figure of then-US Consul General Ed Abington, standing by a burning bus carcass on Jaffa Road, mobile phone to his ear, pleading with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is an indelible memory.

The Israeli government, unlike its constituents, could not afford an instinctive reaction.

"The bus bombing in Tel Aviv doesn't change the equation," said Yigal Palmor, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, as negotiations on the ceasefire entered their last critical hour. "Political decisions are not made in the heat of the moment. For sure, it doesn't make anyone's task any easier."

"We are facing terror organizations that have carried out attacks of terror in the 80s, the 90s and the 2000s, so there is nothing new here. We know exactly what we are up against. This thing doesn't change the equation at all. We remain in a struggle against terror groups that will stop at nothing in their attempt to kill civilians at random, be it by missile, by rockets, by mortar by bombings or by shootings," he continued.

All day long, hardened commentators all but scoffed at the Tel Aviv bomb. On Israel Army Radio, former police chief Assaf Cheffetz referred to the event, which wounded 28 people and demolished a bus in bustling central Tel Aviv, as "a really minor attack. A small bomb. It shows whoever did it has no infrastructure."

"The bomb was made up of only two or three kilos of improvised explosives," said a Channel 2 news reporter, dismissing the event.

Several groups rushed to take credit for the bombing, including an armed faction of Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued a statement claiming joint credit for the bombing.

Israeli police appeared skeptical about the claims and said they believed the attacker, who did not commit suicide, but left an explosive device on the bus before getting off it, originated in the West Bank, not Gaza.

In an interview with CNN, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said Hamas was not behind the blast, pointing instead at Netanyahu.

"Not Hamas ... not other people from Hamas," Meshal said to Cristianne Amanpour. "No one can announce except those who committed, not me … It is Netanyahu with his crimes, in killing the kids of Gaza, and the continuity of aggression. He created such ramifications everywhere. This could lead to any kind of reaction as retaliation for what happened in Gaza."

As in the mid-1990s, Israelis will go to the polls in eight weeks. Police have issue stark alerts about the possibility of terror attacks. Minister of Interior Security Yitzhak Aharonovich warned Israelis against "complacency," pointing out that someone on the bus might have noticed an abandoned bag.

At the end of the charged day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Cairo, announced the ceasefire. As residents of the south headed to their first night of undisturbed sleep in weeks, other Israelis went to sleep hoping that a new season of terror was not upon them.