GAZA CITY (CNN) # A massive explosion rocked a U.S. diplomatic convoy in northern Gaza on Wednesday, Palestinian sources said, with several casualties reported.
It was not immediately known whether the blast was caused by a suicide bomber or a roadside explosive.
Israel Radio is reporting four Americans are dead. But that report could not be immediately confirmed.
The explosion occurred near Beit Hanoun. Video of the scene showed several demolished vehicles, with bloodstains nearby.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said it is aware of the explosion and is looking into the details.
U.S. Ambassador John Wolf was not in the country at the time of the attack, despite media reports that said he was in the convoy, the embassy said.
GAZA CITY (CNN) # At least three Americans were killed and another seriously wounded Wednesday when an explosion hit a U.S. Embassy convoy in northern Gaza near the border with Israel, according to U.S. and Israeli sources.
A senior administration official in Washington confirmed that the four American casualties were employed by the U.S. Embassy to provide security. The official described the Americans as government contractors.
Palestinian police cars were leading the U.S. convoy, when a roadside bomb was triggered, hitting the lead U.S. vehicle, Palestinian sources said.
An Associated Press correspondent at the scene reported seeing a gray wire leading from the bomb crater to a small concrete building nearby. He said an on/off switch was attached to the wire. Video of the scene showed a crater, about three feet deep and eight feet wide.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The three-car convoy was carrying at least 12 Americans and was escorted by Palestinian security, Israeli sources said.
U.S. officials frequently travel through Palestinian territories at the request of the Palestinian Authority to monitor the Mid east peace process, according to Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei strongly condemned the attack, offered his condolences, and promised an investigation.
Erakat also offered his condolences and condemned the attack.
“These people were here to help us,” Erakat insisted, saying an attack on what he described as U.S. monitors was not in the interest of the Palestinian people. “I don’t think this was a deliberate attack against the Americans.”
“We offer to have an immediate, joint Palestinian-American investigation committee to investigate the matter,” Erakat said.
John Wolf, special U.S. envoy to the Middle East, was not in the country at the time of the attack near Beit Hanoun, despite media reports that said he was in the convoy, the embassy said.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said it was investigating.
Erakat said the Americans were in Gaza at the request of the Palestinians as part of the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace in the region.
The road map # a plan put forth by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations # calls for an end to “violence and terrorism” and envisions an independent Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel.
Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, also offered condolences, noting that Israelis “understand exactly the kind of grief this terrible, terrible terrorism causes.”
“Clearly these attacks are motivated by the same anti-Western, anti-American feelings that unite all these forces in the Middle East,” he said.
Gold said “this attack would never have occurred” if the Palestinian Authority had cracked down on terrorist groups.
The explosion that blasted a CIA vehicle outside Beit Hanoun just after an official US embassy convoy entered the northern Gaza Strip through the Erez checkpoint represents a dangerous escalation of Palestinian terrorist aggression. It is a milestone, akin to the August 19 suicide strike against UN headquarters in Baghdad which claimed 15 lives including special UN representative in Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello. He was the linchpin of American efforts to restore normalcy to the country. Since then, the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated disastrously as international bodies assisting those efforts quietly withdraw themselves and their services from Iraq.
The Palestinian assault on an American convoy in the Gaza Strip had the same objective.
Despite official denials, the convoy was carrying members of John Wolf’s monitoring team appointed by the US President to bring some normalcy to Palestinian-controlled areas and start defusing Palestinian-Israel warfare. Clearly, the Palestinian attack aimed at undermining not only the American initiative but also the efforts of diplomats and aid workers posted in region by the United Nations and Europeans, who of late are avoiding contact with Yasser Arafat and threatening to sever ties with him altogether. Now, their representatives and staff will almost certainly emulate their colleagues in Iraq and quietly pull up their stakes in the embattled country.
Arafat, despite his grave health condition, is still up to concocting one of his famous smoke-and- mirrors stratagems. Brandishing an olive branch to conceal the gun, he assigned one of his top disinformation experts, Yasser Abd Rabbo, to the task of luring a group of Israeli left-wingers into the web of deceit which has become known as the “Geneva Accords”. At the very moment that attention focused on the debate aroused by this “peace” initiative, he struck an official American target in the Gaza Strip with swift, dramatic effect as the next stage in his coming terror campaign.
Aware he may not have much time left to develop this campaign, he has removed the gloves and is striking out simultaneously in three directions:
1. Against Israel. Wednesday, the 21st victim of October 4 Palestinian suicide attack in a Haifa restaurant died of his wounds.
2. Israel Arab citizens are being increasingly drawn into acts of terror.
3. Strikes against US targets in Palestinian-controlled regions and Israel.
The Beit Hanoun attack Wednesday required a high class of advanced, precise intelligence and logistic preparations that could not have been assembled overnight. The assailants were fed their data on American CIA movements in Gaza by the same foreign intelligence agents who supply the pro-Saddam guerrillas in Iraq.
The convoy consisted of three armor-plated vehicles with two Palestinian police escort cars. The bombers detonated their charge precisely to hit the one carrying CIA guards, the last in line.
Fox TV’s Col.(ret.) David Hunt described it as a Chevy Suburban with level 5 armor built to stand RPG hits to the doors and landmine explosions from the bottom. He estimated the landmine that struck the car as between 30 and 50 pounds, similar to the devices used against coalition forces in Iraq. It is possible that an RPG was fired first to crack the heavy armor and make the vehicle susceptible to the landmine. An Associated Press reporter spotted a wire and switch leading from the scene of the attack to a concrete building.
The US cultural attaché rode in another vehicle. He was of no interest to the Palestinian bombers. They were after American security personnel. All the Palestinian terrorist organizations – from the al Aqsa Martyrs brigades to the Hamas – denied responsibility for bomb attack with one voice. American investigators who arrived quickly on the scene near Beit Hanoun were pelted with stones. They fired on the Palestinian mob and injured some. A similar incident occurred outside Gaza City’s Shifa hospital where US officials attended injured and dead.
An Israeli tank force entered the northern Gaza Strip to restore order and take command of the highways.
The offer by Palestinian leaders including Arafat to probe the assault jointly with American investigators went down as arrant cynicism. No one doubts any longer that Arafat’s hand stirs the terrorist pot in Israel and Palestinian regions, be the perpetrators Palestinian, Hizballah or al Qaeda, any more than an inquiry is needed to establish who is behind the guerrilla terrorist operations carried by Saddam’s men and al Qaeda in Iraq.
It is clear that Arafat is determined to go out on a blaze of Palestinian terror – not just against Israelis but Americans too. The State Department’s first reponse was to order Americans to leave the Gaza Strip and exercise extreme caution in the West Bank.