Israel prepared to mount retaliatory attacks today after a bomb exploded near an armored bus transporting Israeli children and their teachers in the Gaza Strip. Two adults were killed and nine passengers wounded, including at least five children, Israeli radio reported.
The new civilian deaths increased the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to retaliate harshly — something he has said he was trying to avoid in order to keep the door open to a resumption of peace talks after seven weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Hospitals in southern Israel said the children, described as first graders, were badly injured. The bomb exploded about 70 yards from the bus.
Shrapnel from the blast — caused by a 122 mm mortar shell attached to a detonator — tore melon-sized holes into a side of the red-and-white bus and shattered windows. The words “This is what we get for restraint,” were spraypainted in Hebrew on the bus after the explosion, which occurred on a road between Jewish settlements in Gaza.
One adult and one child were in serious condition. Army officials said the armor of the bus and the considerable distance between the explosion and the bus helped blunt the impact of the attack.
Most injuries were to the lower limbs, the hospitals said. One of the dead was Miriam Amitai, 35, a mother of four and resident of the Kfar Darom settlement. A settler spokesman today said her funeral would be held this afternoon at the Ofra settlement.
Israel Approves Military Response
Barak’s security Cabinet today approved attacks against Palestinian “military” targets in retaliation for the bombing, Israeli TV reported.
It said the security Cabinet had given the go-ahead for “selective attacks,” tougher economic sanctions on the Palestinians and a tightening of an Israeli military encirclement of Palestinian cities.
Nachman Shai, a spokesman for Barak, said militants in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction were behind the first fatal bombing of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since a wave of violence began almost two months ago.
But the Palestinian Authority has denied responsibility for the blast.
“The Palestinian Authority is not linked to the explosion in any way. The explosion has taken place in an area under Israeli security control and Israel is responsible for the security there,” a senior official said.
Hours after the attack, the Palestinian Authority condemned the incident, as it has other attempted school bus bombings in the past.
“I am asking the Israeli Government for restraint. We are against all kinds of violence,” said Palestinian spokesman Nabil Aburdone. But he also pointed out that the attack took place in an Israeli-controlled security zone where Palestinian security forces had no control.
In the past, similar attacks have been carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Islamic militant groups that have tried to wreck Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements with bombings and other attacks against Israelis.
Pointing the Finger
Israel says Arafat has recently freed Islamic militants from Palestinian jails and accuses him of giving them a green light to attack Israeli targets. The Palestinian Authority denies encouraging such attacks.
More than 240 people have been killed in nearly two months of violence, most of them Palestinians.
The dead from today’s attack were identified as Gabriel Biton and Miriam Amitai, 35, a mother of four. Three wounded children were from the same family, ages 7, 8 and 12, and all had to undergo partial leg or arm amputations, according to Batia Kuris, a spokeswoman at Soroka Hospital, where they were being treated.
The school bus left the isolated Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the heart of the Gaza Strip at around 7:30 a.m. Monday. Students and teachers were en route to elementary school in Gush Katif, a bloc of Jewish settlements in the south of the strip.
Three assailants hiding among bushes along the side of the road exploded the mortar shell by remote control when the bus was several dozen yards away, said an army spokesman, Maj. Yarden Vatikay.
At the scene of today’s attack, near the Kfar Darom settlement, burned and injured passengers milled about the badly damaged bus and a burning military vehicle damaged in the same explosion.
Settlers who were part of the convoy rushed to the aid of the shocked and wounded children and soldiers, while Palestinians near the scene fled.
Kfar Darom settlers who heard the blast came rushing to the scene as parents searched desperately for their children. The bus was driven back to the settlement, where it remained parked with ambulances standing by.
U.S. Official Condemns Attack
A U.S. official today condemned the bombing in Gaza.
“This demonstrates the importance of both sides moving ahead as fast as possible in implementing the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement,” the official said.
He was referring to the agreement reached between Arafat and Barak at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh last month, to a cease-fire in the weeks of violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters. The agreement however, has done little to curb the violence.
Armed Convoy to School
Buses, cars and military escorts take schoolchildren in convoys from the 7,000-strong settler population in the Gaza Strip to school and work, mainly in Israel, every morning, and bring them back at night.
The booby trap was set where the settlement meets the main road that crosses the Gaza strip, where some 6,500 Jewish settlers live among 1 million Palestinians. It was one of a series of such attacks on settler buses by Palestinian bombers.
On Saturday, a member of the Palestinian security force penetrated a fence at the same settlement on Saturday and killed an Israeli soldier before he was killed himself. The Palestinian Authority condemned the incident, but the man was buried with full military honors on Sunday.
The incident came as there appeared to be hope that the violence of the past two months was dying down after Arafat issued a series of tough decrees banning all shooting from populated areas and ordering schools and universities to keep youngsters away from the flashpoints.
But Arafat’s decree did not extend to attacks in parts of the West Bank and Gaza that are under Israeli rule.
At least two Palestinians were killed in shooting incidents on Sunday, but the violence appeared to be waning, both sides agreed.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said today’s attack was especially grave because the explosion was set off from a Palestinian-controlled area.
ABCNEWS’ Sue Masterman in Vienna, Bassem Barhoum in Ramallah and Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.