JERUSALEM (AP) After a series of suicide bombings against Israel that killed 25 people and wounded nearly 200, Yasser Arafat ordered dozens of Islamic militants arrested and promised harsh action. But Israel was deeply skeptical, with hard-liners calling for the removal of the Palestinian leader.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short his U.S. trip to rush home after meeting with President Bush, who denounced the bombings as “horrific acts of murder.”
Bush and other world leaders pressed Arafat to crack down on militants. The Palestinian leader “must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice,” Bush said.
Images of bodies lying on sidewalks and blood-smeared survivors crying out in agony filled TV screens, and Israelis had a growing sense that 14 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting had reached a crossroads.
“It must be understood that we are at a turning point,” said Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai. He did not say how Israel would retaliate but warned the Palestinian Authority was “endangering its existence” by not cracking down on militants.
The carnage began in Jerusalem just before midnight Saturday, when two suicide bombers set off their nail-filled bombs on Ben Yehuda street, an area of cafes and bars packed with young Israelis. Ten people, mostly teens, were killed, and 150 were wounded.
At noon yesterday, another Palestinian blew himself up in a bus in the northern port city of Haifa, sending bodies flying and destroying the vehicle. Fifteen people were killed and 40 injured.
The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombings, in retaliation for Israel”s slaying of a Hamas leader nine days ago. Three suicide attackers were killed in the bombings. Hamas said its gunmen were behind the shooting Sunday of an Israeli driver in the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers killed the two gunmen in that attack.
Near the West Bank city of Jenin, the army said troops shot and killed four armed Palestinians. The four approached an army position with the intention of carrying out an attack, the army said.
Echoing Bush”s comments, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and the European Union demanded Arafat move against groups backing terrorism. Pope John Paul II told pilgrims at the Vatican that the attacks were “sorrowful and worrisome” and urged prayers for peace.
Arafat promised to take harsh action against the militants and declared a state of emergency in the Palestinian areas. Palestinian police, accompanied by journalists, began rounding up Islamic militants.
An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 90 militants have been arrested, including senior Hamas leaders Ismail Abu Shanab and Ismail Haniya. Security chief Jibril Rajoub said those involved in the bombings “would pay the price.”
Skeptical Israelis pointed to a string of past broken promises. “Arafat will be judged according to his actions, not his declarations,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for expelling Arafat and sending Israeli troops into Palestinian-controlled territory. Even some dovish politicians said they no longer considered Arafat a partner for peace.
In at least six Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, gunmen fired in the air to celebrate the bombings. Some Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also supported the attacks, with celebratory shots fired outside the home of one of the Haifa bombers.
But some Palestinians said they were tired of the bloodshed. “The world should help both of us, Israelis and Palestinians, to get out of this pool of blood,” said Omar Jumma, 31, an engineer in Gaza City.
In a first step, the Israeli military further tightened travel restrictions, barring Palestinians from driving on most West Bank roads. The Defense Ministry said the army would take “a series of steps” and that this was “a critical test” for the Palestinian Authority.
A U.S. envoy in the region, Anthony Zinni, denounced the attacks as the “lowest form of inhumanity,” but said the violence must not derail his efforts to arrange an Israeli-Palestinian truce.