JERUSALEM (AP) – An Islamic militant blew himself up in a packed bus during morning rush hour yesterday, killing seven other passengers, including four Israeli soldiers. Israel said it wouldn’t retaliate for now and agreed to a crucial meeting with the Palestinians in an effort to produce a cease-fire after 18 months of Mideast fighting.

Paul Wong
Police and rescue workers attend to the scene of a bus bombing in Um Al Fahem, an Arab town in northern Israel. The bomber killed himself and seven others. (AP PHOTO)

Israel Radio reported that the meeting of security commanders from both sides with U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, in Tel Aviv late yesterday, ended without agreement on a truce, and another session would be held in the coming days.

Zinni earlier contacted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to ensure that the delicate truce talks would not be derailed by the bombing near the northern town of Afula. The explosion, which blew gaping holes in the sides of the bus, also injured 27 people, many of them Arab Israelis.

Israelis and Palestinians have both hinted a truce could be declared as early as today. However, the militant Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bombing and said it would not abide by any cease-fire agreement.

“I had the honor to organize (this attack), and I want to tell the Israelis that as long as Sharon is killing Palestinians, we in Islamic Jihad will kill Israelis,” said Mahmoud Tawalbi, head of group in the West Bank town of Jenin.

The U.S. truce plan, written last year under the guidance of CIA director George Tenet, calls on Palestinians to “apprehend, question and incarcerate terrorists.” Israel is prohibited from “attacks of any kind against Palestinian Authority facilities.”

No specific mechanism is foreseen to prevent retaliation for an attack, and both sides will have to exercise restraint, said a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay said there will be no provisions in the agreement for dealing with attacks. He said there can be no cease-fire if there are terror attacks.

Several previous cease-fires collapsed, and this month has seen the deadliest spurt of violence since the fighting began in September 2000.

“The patience of the (Israeli) public will not be able to hold out for another attack or two,” said Israeli Labor Minister Shlomo Benizri.

Following yesterday’s bombing, Sharon said Arafat bore ultimate responsibility for failing to prevent it. Arafat has “not moved away from a policy of terror, has not taken any steps and has not given any orders to stop attacks,” Sharon said.

But Israel Radio, citing sources close to Sharon, said Israel would hold off on retaliation and would not cancel last night’s truce talks in Tel Aviv, during which the Palestinians were to respond to Israel’s proposed truce timetable.

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