The two deadly bombs that shattered a crowded marketplace in central Jerusalem on Wednesday reverberated across the Middle East, forcing the main players in the region’s faltering peace process to reassess their next moves and enveloping Israel in a wrenching new darkness of bloodshed and fear.
As Israelis jammed the old, narrow Mahane Yehuda market, two bombs packed with nails exploded simultaneously, killing at least 14 people, including two Arab suicide bombers, and injuring at least 150 others in a devastating attack that stunned the Jewish state with its viciousness and callousness.
Hours after the blasts, few bodies had been identified due to the intensity of the explosions which sent steel, cement and bodies flying.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded release of its followers from Israeli prisons by Sunday at 9 p.m. Eyewitnesses said the two bombers - dressed in long black coats usually worn by Orthodox Jews - methodically stepped out of a car and walked about 60 yards past shoppers and vendors. The men made eye contact, apparently synchronizing the explosions, which went off seconds apart.
In an emergency session in the aftermath of Wednesday’s carnage, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet suspended peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this week, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to resume the talks next week following a four-month deadlock.
The Cabinet said the peace process would not advance as long as the Palestinians fail to honor their commitment to fight terrorism. And it ordered Israel’s military and intelligence arms to take actions against Palestinian terror groups.
In Washington, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross postponed a scheduled trip to the region as the Clinton administration condemned the attack and reviewed its diplomatic options for reviving the peace process.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, returning from an Asian trip, spoke with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat by phone Wednesday. She said Arafat “unequivocally committed himself” to restoring a secure environment.
In a rare appearance on Israel Television, speaking in English, Arafat said: “I condemn completely these terrorist activities because it is against the peace process, against the Palestinians and against Israelis, and we will do all (in) our capability to face these terrorist activities.”
Netanyahu reacted harshly, accusing the Palestinian leader of failing to crack down on extremists and angrily demanding that Arafat’s Palestinian Authority wage a “war against terror.”
“Words of condolence are not enough,” Netanyahu told reporters after visiting some of the wounded at a Jerusalem hospital. “We have the right to demand of those who call themselves our partners in peace to be partners in peace.”
He said those who carry out attacks like the Jerusalem bombings “get guidance, get support, they get incentive from inside the territories of the Palestinian Authority.”
Calling the bombings “barbarous,” President Clinton said the violence was “aimed at the majority of Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, who want a lasting and just peace.”
The Mahane Yehuda market is Jerusalem’s main fruit and vegetable marketplace. It borders one of the city’s busiest streets and was packed with shoppers Wednesday afternoon when the bombs exploded.
The narrow marketplace became a cramped blood-stained battlefield in the first major bombing since another suicide bomber killed three and wounded 42 at a Tel Aviv cafe in March.
Ultra-Orthodox men immediately began a solemn search on old stone walls and blast-damaged metal rooftops of the market for body parts, abiding with the Jewish tradition of burying the entire body of the dead.
Panicked Israelis flooded the telephone lines all day as word of the explosions provoked widespread grief and mourning for the dead and injured.
Many Israelis quickly voiced their hopes, fears and frustrations with the four-year-old peace accords with the Palestinians. Some blamed the incident on the peace agreement reached with the Palestinians. Others blamed it rather on the failure to make any real progress in the talks.
“From the moment you signed these horrible agreements, you saved the PLO. They were in the final stages, on the way to complete ruin, they were finished,” former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said angrily during a debate with a leading Labor Party official on Israel TV.
Ironically, Israeli and Palestinian officials had announced on Monday that they would resume low-level peace talks next week. The meetings were stalled for months following Arab protests over a new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, and complaints of the right-wing Israeli government that the Palestinians have not abided by the peace accord.
Israeli officials predicted that the government would demand a thorough crackdown by Arafat against Arab terrorists.
“He (Arafat) has done almost nothing to fight terror,” said government spokesman Moshe Fogel. Whatever Arafat does, “it will have to be more than an act,” Fogel added.
Soon after the explosions about 1:15 p.m. local time, Israeli officials closed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring the 2.5 million Palestinians from entering Israel, and ordering all Palestinians to return home.
Arafat declared a state of emergency in the limited areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority as Palestinian officials condemned the attacks.
“Israeli needs to treat us as partners, not as suspects,” said Marwan Kanafani, spokesman for Arafat.
“We are in for a difficult period of reprisal and collective action against Palestinians,” predicted Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian minister of higher education, and a leading voice for moderate Palestinians.
“I hope when the dust settles and the period of mourning is over people will think how to restore peace, because peace is the only thing that can put an end to violence,” she added.