Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas announced late Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority was ending all talks with representatives of the militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, both of which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 18 and injured more than 130.
The bomb exploded shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday [2 p.m. EDT] aboard a double-length city bus in the crowded, largely ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim near the border between east and west Jerusalem. The explosion damaged a second bus, Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said.
“It’s one of the worst scenes,” said Zelig Seiner, an official of the Zake ambulance service. “Although we have been to many scenes in the past three years, it is so hard to get used to. But to see the young babies and children, it’s absolutely terrible.”
A statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the bus was carrying families back from a visit to the Western Wall. Many children were among the victims.
“The bomb went off at the back of the bus. Everything went black. I climbed out of the broken window and started running. All around me there were people covered in blood, screaming, some with limbs missing,” Zvi Weiss, an 18-year-old Jewish seminary student from New York City, told The Associated Press. Weiss was unharmed.
Palestinian sources told CNN that Abbas began holding meetings with his ministers and heads of security after the bombing, and decided to break off talks with the two militant groups. The source said the Palestinian Authority blames Hamas and Islamic Jihad for severely damaging the interests of the Palestinian people.
The authority is also considering additional measures against the groups, details of which will be announced in a few days.
Abbas, who was meeting in Gaza with Islamic Jihad representatives when the bomber struck, has canceled meetings and travel plans, and will remain in Gaza to monitor developments.
“I announce my strong condemnation of this horrible act, which does not serve the interest of the Palestinian people at all,” Abbas said. “I have given my instructions to the security minister to launch an investigation.”
Militants: Attack does not break cease-fire
Israel froze contact with the Palestinian Authority, including discussions that had been taking place this week to hand back security control of four West Bank towns # first Jericho and Qalqilya, then Tulkarem and Ramallah.
The Israeli security Cabinet planned to meet early Wednesday to discuss a response to the attack. A senior Israeli spokesman told CNN that the Cabinet would discuss the possibility of a complete closure of the West Bank.
Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel would take the necessary steps to defend its citizens if the Palestinian Authority would not bring militant groups under control.
Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said the government must “re-evaluate its position” on holding talks with the Palestinians in the wake of the bombing and that the Palestinian Authority has failed to crack down on militant groups.
“Words, words and words are not action. We need action,” Meir said.
Islamic Jihad said the suicide bombing was in retaliation for the death of one of its leaders last week in a gunfight with Israeli troops.
Both Islamic Jihad and Hamas identified the bomber as a 29-year-old man from the West Bank city of Hebron.
Hamas said the bomber was a member of its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, and the attack was in revenge for the killing of two of its members.
“We are committed to the cease-fire, but we will respond to every aggression by the enemy,” a Hamas statement said.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erakat urged the United States to continue “every possible effort” to maintain Israeli-Palestinian peace talks despite the attack.
He condemned the bombing, saying “such attacks harm the interests of the Palestinian people.”
U.N. chief urges Abbas to take action
The White House condemned the bombing and again called on the Palestinian Authority to “act to dismantle terrorism.
“We condemn this vicious act of terrorism in the strongest of terms,” White House spokesman Sean McCormack said.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Sharon and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to express “sympathy and condolences,” a senior State Department official told CNN.
The official said Powell would “probably” call Abbas as well, to urge the “dismantling” of the terrorist infrastructure of groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That is one of the steps laid out in the so-called “road map” for peace, the U.S.-backed measure designed to create a Palestinian state that would exist peacefully with Israel.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement that Annan “condemns in the strongest possible terms the suicide bombing.
“The secretary-general has made clear repeatedly that terrorist attacks are totally reprehensible,” the spokesman’s statement said.
“He urges Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas to take decisive action to arrest the instigators of this attack and prevent such attacks from happening again,” the statement said. It also called on Israel’s government to “act with restraint in the face of this provocation, and not contribute to a renewed cycle of violence and revenge.”
The bombing is the most deadly attack since three major Palestinian militant groups # Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades # declared a temporary halt to attacks against Israelis on June 29.
The U.S. State Department has designated the three groups as terrorist organizations.
Palestinians have been angered by Israel’s continued crackdown on militants and the continued construction of a fence in the West Bank near the Israeli border. Israel says the fence is meant to thwart terrorist attacks from outside its borders, but Palestinians say it divides some towns and unilaterally creates an Israeli border.
Less than a week ago, a pair of suicide bombings killed two Israelis and wounded at least a dozen others.