JERUSALEM (CNN) # The fledgling road map to Middle East peace was put to a bloody test Wednesday, when a Hamas suicide bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem and Israeli forces attacked Hamas militants in Gaza, leaving more than two dozen people dead and 100 others wounded.
The latest episode in a week of violence came late Wednesday night. Two Palestinian militants were killed in a neighborhood east of Gaza City after a missile attack launched from Israeli helicopter gunships, Palestinian hospital and security sources said. Another person was wounded, sources said.
A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said members of a terrorist cell preparing to launch mortar shells from an area near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim were the targets of the attack.
An earlier Israeli attack on Hamas targets killed seven people.
The two helicopter strikes were not retaliation for Wednesday’s suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed 16 people and the bomber, the IDF said.
Despite Wednesday’s carnage, President Bush and other key leaders involved in pushing the road map insisted the violence should not be allowed to derail the process begun with high hopes last week at a summit in Jordan.
“It is clear there are people in the Middle East who hate peace,” Bush said. “There are people who want to kill in order to make sure that the desires of Israel to live in secured peace don’t happen, who kill to make sure that the [Palestinian] desires … of a peaceful state living side by side with Israel do not happen.” (Full story)
“For the people in the world who want to see peace in the Middle East, I strongly urge all of you to fight off terror, to cut off money to organizations such as Hamas # to isolate those who hate so much that they’re willing to kill to stop peace from going forward,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that despite Wednesday’s violence, “I think it is important that the leaders stay the course.”
“What happened … is utterly reprehensible, but it should not deter the leaders from moving ahead,” he said. “Obviously, we should deal very firmly with all these terrorist attacks, but the only path to peace is the road map.”
At about 5:30 p.m., (10:30 a.m. EDT), a suicide bomber dressed as an ultra Orthodox Jew detonated a device on a bus in central Jerusalem, killing himself and 16 others during evening rush hour, Israeli authorities said. Along with the 16 people killed, another 70 were injured, seven seriously, Israeli hospital officials said. (Scene)
Among those wounded was the 30-year-old daughter of New Jersey State Sen. Robert Singer, according to a Micha Rasmussen, a spokesman for Gov. James McGreevey. Singer was en route to Israel, Rasmussen said.
The military wing of Hamas # which has rejected calls from new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas for a cease-fire # claimed responsibility for the attack.
Within minutes of the bombing, Israeli helicopter gunships launched attacks in Gaza, targeting Hamas militants. Palestinian hospital sources said seven people were killed and 40 wounded, including several children.
Palestinian sources said three of the dead were Hamas militants, including Masoud Al-Tito, a commander in the military wing of Hamas; Suhel Abu Hamad, a personal bodyguard of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmad Yassin; and Azam El Jaal, a lower-level Hamas activist.
An Israeli military source told CNN that the attack had been planned in advance and was not a response to the Jerusalem bombing. Because Hamas had made it clear that it was not going to stop suicide attacks, “we are going to keep hitting Hamas,” the source said.
Less than seven hours later, Palestinian security sources said Israeli forces launched another helicopter attack targeting Hamas militants in a neighborhood east of Gaza City, killing two of them. Another person, who was not immediately identified, was injured, sources said.
Palestinian sources also reported that 15 Israeli tanks and five bulldozers entered an area near Rafah in southern Gaza late Wednesday, demolishing at least three homes. Two Apache helicopters were spotted in the area, the sources said.
In the wake of the bus bombing, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Israel would continue to pursue “murderous terrorist organizations” that “initiate, fund and send out terrorists.” But he also said Israel is committed to moving forward with the road map.
“We have the deepest obligation to do everything to go forward with the peace process that will bring peace and quiet,” he said.
On the Palestinian side, Abbas and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat condemned both the Jerusalem bombing and the Israeli attack in Gaza.
“Ending this deterioration requires the commitment of all parties to end violence and cease fire and begin serious implementation of the road map,” Abbas said. His spokesman said Abbas was referring to “all Israelis and all Palestinians” # including Hamas # in that call.
Arafat called for “an immediate cessation of all forms of operations and shootings. The evil, vicious circle of military operation from all parties must stop immediately.”
Wednesday’s violence comes a week after Abbas, Sharon and Bush met face-to-face in Aqaba, Jordan, to launch the road map, which is designed to lead to an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel.
As part of that agreement, Abbas committed to crack down on Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israelis. But he has so far been unable to get Hamas and other militant groups to agree to a cease-fire.
Since the summit, Israeli authorities said they have arrested 10 would-be suicide bombers.
Tuesday, Israeli forces launched helicopter strikes on two Hamas targets, killing five people. A Hamas leader who survived that attack, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, said Wednesday’s bombing was in response to Tuesday’s Israeli strikes.
Israeli officials said Rantissi was targeted because he played a major role in coordinating an attack Sunday that killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded four others.
Tuesday, Bush said he was “troubled” by the Israeli attacks on Hamas.
“I am concerned that the attacks will make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off terrorist attacks,” he said.
The road map, supported by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, calls for a Palestinian state by 2005, an entity that would live in peace with Israel after a number of steps on both sides.
Among the first steps is a Palestinian effort to end militant attacks on Israeli targets and the Israeli dismantling of “unauthorized outposts” in the West Bank and Gaza.
The latest violence came as the Egyptian government was trying to help the Palestinian Authority negotiate a truce with Palestinian hard-liners opposed to the road map. As part of that effort, Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, met with Arafat, Abbas and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan