Suicide bus bombing kills 9 in Israel

JERUSALEM – A Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in northern Israel during the morning rush hour Sunday, killing himself and eight passengers on a day punctuated by violence from the rolling hills of Galilee to Jerusalem’s Old City to the Mediterranean beach front.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the bus bombing, which left charred remains across a highway. The attack, at the Meron Junction near the town of Tsfat, was the militant group’s second deadly bombing in five days.

Altogether, two bombings and three shootings Sunday left 13 people dead and dozens wounded. Among the dead were three Palestinian militants who died carrying out – or preparing to carry out – the violence, Israeli officials said.

Israel’s military clampdown on the West Bank has kept many Palestinians confined to their homes for most of the past six weeks.

“People lucky enough not to face the ugly face of terror can have a much more relaxed opinion about it,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. “If you live through a day like today, in this country, you can understand our determination.”

President Bush said he was “distressed” to learn of the bus bombing. “There are a few killers who want to stop the peace process,” Bush said.

The Israeli government said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who turned 73 on Sunday, bore ultimate responsibility for not reining in militants during the 22 months of Mideast fighting.

“This Palestinian terror must be uprooted and Israel will not relent,” said David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.

The Palestinian leadership condemned the bombing, but also accused Sharon of “war crimes” for the Israeli army’s mass detentions, home demolitions and curfews imposed on Palestinians.

Israeli officials had said high-level talks between Sharon and Palestinian Cabinet ministers could be expected later this week, but it was unclear whether the meetings would go ahead as planned after Sunday’s attacks.

Hamas said the bus bombing was the second retaliatory strike for Israel’s July 22 air strike that killed a senior Hamas leader, Salah Shehadeh, and 14 others in Gaza City. Hamas also carried out a Wednesday bombing at Jeru-salem’s Hebrew University that killed seven, including five Americans.

About 1,500 people celebrated the bus bombing in Gaza City late Sunday, where militants shouting over loudspeakers vowed to “avenge every drop of his blood.”

Three hours after Sunday’s bus bombing, a Palestinian attacker opened fire just outside the stone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, sparking a gun battle with police that left three dead.

The Palestinian gunman used a pistol to fire at close range on a truck belonging to Israel’s main phone company, Bezeq. A security guard was killed and the driver was injured, police said.

Seconds later, Israeli police began firing. The gunman was killed by police, and an Arab bystander was hit and killed by cross fire, Israeli officials said.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, whose members are loyal to Arafat, claimed responsibility.

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