The Washington Post

Paul Wong
An Israeli police officer uses his radio as he walks by the wreckage of a bus that crashed into a crowd of Israeli soldiers and civilians yesterday near Tel Aviv.<br><br>AP PHOTO

AZUR, Israel A Palestinian bus driver steered into a throng of young Israeli soldiers and civilians at a crowded bus stop near Tel Aviv yesterday morning, killing eight of them, injuring nearly 20 and transforming rush hour into a tableau of carnage.

Leaving the bodies of his victims strewn over the sidewalk and roadside, the driver sped south, leading Israeli police on a wild 15-mile chase until he was shot, crashed into a truck and captured north of the Gaza Strip, where he lived.

The hit-and-run attack in the heart of Israel was the most lethal terrorist act here since 1997 and the deadliest single event in the past 4 1/2 months of violence. It reinforced a growing sense that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having already taken nearly 400 lives since the end of September, is on the verge of escalating even further.

“Today every Palestinian is like a Scud missile,”” said David Bar Maoz, 33, an Israeli who joined an angry crowd protesting at the scene of the incident. “He gets up, puts on his clothes and mows people down.””

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at first blamed Israel, which assassinated an alleged Palestinian terrorist in Gaza on Tuesday, for fueling a cycle of violence and revenge. “What is happening is an Israeli military escalation that has direct consequences on the feelings of the Palestinian people,”” Arafat told reporters while visiting the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Later in the day, speaking at a news conference in the Turkish capital of Ankara, Arafat said that according to information he had received so far, he believed the episode was an accident, Reuters reported. “Whatever the cause, we are against the use of violence and of course killing people,”” he said.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a tightening of the blockade on Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza, including a closure of border crossings from Jordan and Egypt measures likely to inflict further damage on the already crippled Palestinian economy. He also barred even Palestinian officials holding Israeli-issued VIP passes from entering Israel. And he instructed police to be on the lookout for all Palestinians in Israel, of whom there are thousands at any time.

“This is further proof that terrorism will seek by any mean to undermine our ability to endure,”” Barak said. “We are fighting for our right to maintain Jewish sovereignty and to live in this country, and we shall do whatever necessary to fight for this right.””

A sharp escalation in clashes, begun shortly before the Israeli elections last week, continued through the day and evening.

At least three Palestinian groups, including the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, claimed credit for yesterday morning”s bus attack, saying it was carried out to avenge the death of Massoud Ayyad, the high-ranking Palestinian security official killed Tuesday by Israeli Apache helicopters firing anti-tank missiles.

Barak, who remains in charge until prime minister-elect Ariel Sharon can form a government, vowed to punish those responsible. But relatives of the driver, 35-year-old Khalil Abu Olbeh, said he has no ties any militant group, nor is he religious. And Israeli officials said Abu Olbeh, a married father of five who was one of scores of Palestinian drivers licensed to ferry Palestinian day workers in and out of Israel, had held a clearance to enter Israel for five years. He clearance was renewed two weeks ago by the Israeli General Security Service after a background check.

Abu Olbeh, whose leg was amputated in surgery following the incident, was listed in moderate condition and was under heavy guard at an Israeli hospital. According to Israeli officials, he left the Gaza Strip early yesterday morning on a daily run with a busload of Palestinians construction workers, housepainters and handymen dropped off his passengers as usual just east of Tel Aviv in Ramle, then headed south.

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