More Terror: Car Bomb Blows Up Israeli Bus

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

[Editor's note: The Palestinian Authority issued a statement on Wednesday, condemning the car bombing that killed at least 16 people, but denying accusations that Yasser Arafat was responsible for the attack. "The Palestinian Authority reiterates its condemnation of the blowing up of an Israeli bus in the Megiddo area which led to victims among its passengers. The leadership hereby announces it has no connection to the attack," the PA said in a statement, after the following story was filed. In another development, Israeli tanks reportedly moved into the West Bank town of Jenin several hours after the car bombing.]

Jerusalem ( - A suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives blew up his vehicle next to an Israeli passenger bus on Wednesday, completely destroying the bus and killing at least 16 people. More than 40 other people were wounded, at least three of them critically and 10 seriously, according to reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened a meeting of his security cabinet to discuss Israel's response to the attack.

The cabinet meeting would have happened even without an attack. Israeli officials had planned to discuss an intelligence assessment that the Lebanese-based Hizballah was planning "quality" attacks along Israel's border in the next few days.

Police commissioner Shlomo Aharonisky said Wednesday's terror attack was one of the worst Israel has suffered.

"A short distance before Megiddo summit, a car drew up next to [the bus] and blew up," Aharonisky told reporters. "It was one of the worst attacks in terms of casualties."

Bus number 830, traveling from Tel Aviv to Tiberias on an early-morning run, is usually packed with commuters. The bus burst into flames after the car blew up.

Pictures from the scene showed the burned out hull of the bus, completely blackened. Nearby lay what was left of the bombers car, a small mass of smoldering, black, twisted metal.

Blackened debris and body parts were scattered around the area, making it difficult for the authorities to determine the number of dead. Hours after the attack, police were still hesitant to fix the number of those who had been killed. Pieces of the bus were blown some 300 feet away by the force of the blast, witnesses said.

The bus driver, Mickey Harel, was lightly injured in Wednesday's blast. He said this was the fourth terror attack he had been through and he didn't see it coming.

"I left at ten to six from Tel Aviv in the direction of Tiberias. The trip was usual," Harel said in a radio interview.

Most of the passengers on the bus were soldiers, he said. He traveled with them every day and knew them all, he added. He had been driving about 90 minutes, picking up passengers along the way, when there was an explosion.

"Suddenly I felt a great explosion from behind," Harel said. "I knew immediately there was an attack near the bus or in the bus."

Police spokesman Yaron Zamir said police did not know yet how big the device was but described it as "large."

"There was an incident like this in Hadera a year ago," Zamir said. But the car, which exploded was not directly next to the bus. Two suicide bombers died in that explosion and several Israelis were wounded.

According to Aharonisky, police were on high alert in this area because it is near the invisible dividing line between Israel and the territories.

It is also a place where previous attacks have happened. A terrorist attempted to blow himself up at the same intersection last month, but only part of his device exploded and no one was injured.

Israel Blames Arafat

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack in a phone call to the Hizballah's Al Manar television.

"The Jerusalem Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, announced its responsibility for this...operation in a phone call to Al Manar," the station was quoted as having reported.

But Israel laid the blame on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The attack came just one day after CIA chief George Tenet met with Arafat for three hours in Ramallah to discuss reforms in his security services.

Washington has recommended that he cut his 12 security agencies down to three or four under one central command. But Israel says that's not enough.

"They need to reform the head," said Sharon's spokesman Dr. Ra'anan Gissin, in reference to Arafat. "He is the one that needs to be reformed."

Reducing the security services to three or four won't change anything, Gissin said. The PA needs to reform is "strategy of terror" and reform its goals, he added.

"As long as [Arafat] is the head of the pyramid there can be no reforms [and] no peace," he said. "The PA is molded by Yasser Arafat and what he does."

It was unclear what Israel's response to the attack would be after Sharon met with his security cabinet.

"There is a standing decision by the cabinet in response to suicide attacks. There is no need for new decisions," said Gissin.

Israel has backed away from specific retaliatory actions against Palestinian targets since its counter-terrorism operation (Defensive Shield) started at the end of March. But Israeli troops and tanks have continued almost daily incursions into West Bank areas in sweep and arrest operations.

Nevertheless, radio reports quoted sources in Jerusalem saying that Israel would respond to this attack.

The attack came just two days before Sharon is set to leave for the U.S. where he will meet with President Bush to discuss the situation in the Middle East. Gissin said he believed the trip would go ahead as planned.

Sharon cut short a visit to Washington last month when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a billiards club in the south Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon LeZion, killing 15 Israelis.