Moment of Truth for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was meeting on Wednesday with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and security heads to discuss Israel's reaction to a massive suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening.

Twenty people were murdered and more than 100 injured, including many children and babies, when a suicide bomber detonated himself on the Egged Number Two bus, which was packed with religious Jews who had just come from prayers at the Western Wall.

Only nine of those killed have been identified so far, given the appalling condition of the corpses.

An American citizen reportedly is among the dead. Press reports identified her as a mother of 13 children, whose five-month-old baby also died.

Fifty-one of the more than 100 people injured remained in hospital on Wednesday; 14 were seriously injured.

Islamic Jihad and Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. The bomber was identified as a 29-year-old Hamas activist. He was a father of two and high school teacher, who sometimes served as a preacher in one of the largest mosques in Hebron.

Following the attack, Israel suspended what it calls "goodwill gestures" toward the Palestinians and it scrapped the handover of four Palestinian cities to PA security control, a deal that was agreed upon last week.

Israel also clamped a strict closure on the West Bank, forbidding the entry of Palestinian merchants and others into Israel and preventing travel between West Bank cities.

The army also was conducting searches and arrests in Hebron with the intention of dismantling the terrorist infrastructure connected to Tuesday's attack, the army said.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, (Abu Mazen), who had been meeting with leaders of the Islamic Jihad on extending their temporary truce, condemned the attack and said he cut off contacts with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"I want to declare my full condemnation for this terrible act which cannot serve the interests of the Palestinian people," Abbas was quoted as saying.

PA lawmaker Saeb Erekat also said he condemned the attack in the "strongest possible terms," saying it "harms the Palestinian interests."

"Last night President Arafat, Abu Mazen and Dahlan formed an investigation committee in order to bring the perpetrators to justice," Erekat said. "I hope it will produce results as soon as possible," he added.

Erekat, who was the chief PA negotiator in talks with Israel for many years, urged all parties involved not to suspend peace efforts.

"Peace is the only way out," Erekat said. "I urge the U.S. today to make sure the road map doesn't go down."

'Time running out'

But Israeli lawmakers said in radio interviews that after last night's attack, time had run out for Abbas and his security chief Mohammed Dahlan.

"This is the last opportunity for Abu Mazen and [PA Security Minister Mohammed] Dahlan to open a true war against the terrorist organizations," said Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, who heads the center-left Shinui party.

"This is an atrocity that we won't pass by quietly and if now they won't operate with power and won't open a war against the terror organizations, then we have no choice except to open a battle against them," he said.

As for the claim that Israel provoked the terror attack by killing Islamic Jihad's commander (Mohammed Sider), in Hebron last week, Lapid said that Sider had been planning attacks just like the one last night.

"Therefore there is no place for comparison, surely not between the killing of an attacker and the murder of 17 innocents and among them little children," he said.

Transportation Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Israel should blow up the PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's Mukata headquarters compound in Ramallah with everyone inside.

"I think we need to erase all the Mukata with everyone who is inside. I think this message would be understood well by all the terrorist leadership," Lieberman said. He likened such a move to actions the U.S. has taken against terrorist leaders.

"I see that the U.S. chases after Saddam Hussein, and he is also the leader of the Iraqi people. The U.S. is continuing to chase after bin Laden. [The U.S.] does not give up for one second," Lieberman said.

He pointed to the hunt for those responsible for the bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, some 10 years ago as proof that the U.S. does not relent.

Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that while he agreed that everyone in the Mukata deserved to die, he believes Israel should join with the Americans in forcing the PA into making a decision on whether or not it will fight the terrorists.

"Now we have arrived at the moment when we are obligated to cause the Palestinians to say or prove... whether or not [they are] capable of dealing with this challenge," Olmert said. "Then we will know where we stand, what we can expect from this process or they will enter into a real war in which we can help," he added.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, former defense minister and opposition Labor Party leader said that even though he is a proponent of continuing the political process this suicide bombing, with dozens of children among the dead and wounded was the red line.

"All the time I was pressing not to give up, to continue with the political process, to continue with the hudna [truce] until here today, and in my opinion, this is the most right time...Hamas needs to receive a blow, period.

"We cannot hear their spokesmen explaining to us everyday why they are slaughtering our kids. The Palestinian Authority must do some serious soul-searching...

"Enough of their excuses. Either they are willing for Hamas to destroy their house or they will suppress the terrorists and start building a real peace process toward a state, Ben-Eliezer said. "No mother, no father in the world can receive a blow like that."