12 Horrific Hours Of Death
And Terror Take Mid-East
To Edge Of War
By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem
The Independent - London

It may well go down as the weekend when the running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians turned from a nasty, nagging guerrilla conflict into fully fledged war.
It brought three suicide bombings, one car bomb, and two fatal shootings. All but one of them were committed against Israelis, many of whom were in their teens. And it all happened within 12 hours.
It was the largest multiple assault launched by Palestinian militants inside Israel since the intifada began. By nightfall, the death toll stood at 31, and the list of injured had risen higher than 200. The Middle East was bracing itself for Israel's response.
Television screens were still full of the images of blood and misery caused by a triple attack on Jerusalem late on Saturday when appalling new images came pouring in yesterday morning - this time from the northern port city of Haifa, a place that used to boast of its good inter-ethnic relations.
By the time the day ended, 15 people - Israeli Arabs and Jews together - lay dead in Haifa, blown to bits on a municipal bus by a Hamas suicide bomber, Maher Habashi, who had stepped on board and handed over a large banknote as his fare. When the driver called him back to get his change, he blew himself up, a repeat of a similar attack in Hadera on Thursday night which killed three people.
Israel's government announced that it would "be taking the fight into its own hands" - as if it has not already done so during the past year by invading Palestinian towns and killing hundreds of civilians. A fresh internal debate began between Israel's left and right about whether Yasser Arafat should be toppled.
The beginning of the carnage was signalled by two big, almost simultaneous booms sounding across the Jerusalem sky just after 11.30pm on Saturday.
Jerusalem is a late-night city - at least in the western Israeli half. After the end of the Jewish Sabbath, hundreds of young Israelis flood into the centre, particularly the Ben Yehuda Street promenade, for a few hours of relaxation before the start of the working week.
Saturday night was no different. When two young Hamas suicide bombers detonated themselves within 30 yards of one another, the place was teeming with revellers.
Jerusalem's Israeli residents have learnt from experience how to react to bombs. They wait. They listen. They hope. If it is followed by a hush, they shrug and return to their business, relieved that another attempted Palestinian mission to kill has failed.
If the boom is followed by the cacophony of ambulances and police cars, they know there are victims and immediately begin the painful search for news. This time, the racket of sirens started almost at once and carried on for several hours.
Those who saw the first of Saturday night's blasts described the horrors in language that has become sickeningly familiar in recent months. They spoke of severed limbs strewn around the pavement, of victims staggering around in confusion covered in blood. Some had nails and screws, which were packed in the explosives, buried in their flesh.
Such attacks ruin lives suddenly and horribly, as does an Israeli tank shell, armed with thousands of steel darts, fired into the Gaza Strip, or a spray of random machine-gun fire into a residential Arab area from a tank.
This is the point when war becomes purely obscene, no matter what its origins or who bears the brunt of the blame.
Eli Shetreet, 19, said he saw bodies being hurled in the air. "A lot of people were crying, falling, and there was the smell of burning hair," he said.
Yossi Mizrahi saw "people without arms and a person whose stomach was hanging open". Michael Perry, 37, ran out of a nearby bar and saw "lots of limbs and dead bodies". He also saw a "lump of something" that he concluded was the suicide bomber.
Ben Furkoth, 21, saw a man take off his jumper, only to find blood was pouring out of his back. A woman called Yana claimed to have seen one of the young bombers before he blew himself to smithereens. She said he was dressed in a red shirt and jeans.
These were attacks whose calculated and callous nature can never be justifiedby the miseries suffered by Palestinians in the 14-month intifada or more than three decades of illegal military occupation. Nor by their acute sense of having been denied their national rights, or of being betrayed by western diplomacy.
The first bombings were horrendous but the huge car bomb that detonated just before midnight, some 20 minutes after the first blasts, revealed the murderous thinking behind the operation. It cannot but have been deliberately intended to kill those who had been drawn to the scene - in other words, as many people as possible.
The vehicle, a white saloon car, was parked in a side street off the Jaffa Road, just 50 yards from the scene of the suicide bombings. A large crowd of rescue workers and onlookers had gathered nearby before it went off with such cruel force.
People scattered in panic as it sent a fireball more than 40 feet in the air. It failed in its attempt to kill - although it badly injured several people. But it certainly fulfilled its other purpose, which was to sow terror.
I arrived in the middle of west Jerusalem 20 minutes after the mayhem began. It felt different from other aftermaths of other attacks I have seen. People were running in all directions. In the streets leading away from the centre, hooting queues of traffic had built up as Israelis tried to get home, just in case there was another bomb. There was a sense that west Jerusalem felt itself to be under an unpredictable and determined attack, a small whiff of New York, 11 September.
Israel's security forces are usually calm and efficient in the aftermath of bombings. They have had plenty of practice. Ben Yehuda Street has been bombed before; the scene of the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing, which killed 18 people in August, is close by.
But this time, the police and the medics from the scores of ambulances that flooded the area could not conceal their fear and alarm. There was anger, and there was barely disguised panic. Shlomo Ettlinger, a religious student from America, was spluttering with rage, born of a sudden sense of vulnerability: "This a political game. The real story here is that Israel is not defending its people ... If this had been America, there would be guards and policemen everywhere," he said.
The Israeli authorities often allow the foreign press considerable access to the scene of atrocities, not least because they - like the Palestinians - know how important it is to get their side of the story to a worldwide audience. This time we couldn't get close. Nor were we the only ones.
A young Israeli woman in a short black skirt tried to run down to the scene and began violently to wrestle with the paramilitary border policeman blocking her path. Slung across her back, next to her handbag, she was carrying an M-16.
A few yards up the street, a group of bearded ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stared silently at a large pool of blood on the ground. Not far away, someone had discarded a blue shirt, slicked with human gore. Nearby, a young woman was being comforted by friends as she wept uncontrollably.
Palestinian gunmen have set off in pairs on suicide missions across Israel's pre-1967 borders before in this intifada but Saturday was the intifada's first simultaneous double suicide bombing.
They killed 10 Israelis, all aged between 14 and 20.
It was not long before the Israeli security services had - accurately - established that the two suicide bombers were Hamas activists called Nabil Halabiyeh, a 25-year-old guard in an Arab bank, and Osama Bahr, 24, a plasterer who reportedly had a part-time clerical job with Palestinian intelligence.
Some nine hours after theJerusalem bombings, Hamas struck again - this time in the form of two gunmen who infiltrated the Elei Sina Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip, where they shot dead a middle-aged Israeli man before being shot dead themselves. It was two months to the day since two guerrillas penetrated the settlement, and shot dead an Israeli couple.
The picture emerging last night was that one of the Jerusalem bombers - Osama Bahr - captured the lethal combination of poverty and politics that has become typical of this conflict. He spent four years of his life in Israeli jails for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails in the first intifada. "He was very calm," said a relative yesterday, "We had no idea he would do such a thing."
The Haifa suicide bomber had got engaged six weeks ago and was preparing for his wedding, his stunned father said. Muhiy Habashi, 65, said he had no idea his son, Maher, had been recruited by Hamas. Muhiy, a municipal worker in Nablus, got word of his son's death after returning home from evening prayers to join the family for the sundown meal that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Habashi's bomb, ironically, killed both Jews and Arabs on the bus which was crossing Haifa, a city where the two communities live in a fair degree of concord. "I took four people off the bus. Men, women, Arabs and Jews," said Faisal Adnan, an Israeli Arab, who was waiting at a set of traffic lights to cross the road when the bus exploded.
The bombers' identity was always going to be a secret until it was too late but everyone - including the Israeli security forces - knew that Hamas was going to strike inside Israel. That much became a certainty on 23 November, when an Israeli helicopter missile blasted into a car containing Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, the head of Hamas's military wing on the West Bank, killing him and two others. The assassination shattered an informal agreement - as the Israeli security services surely knew it would - between Yasser Arafat and the Islamist militant group who, until the past few days, had not carried out any suicide bombings inside Israel since 11 September.
Yesterday Israel was burying its dead. They were ordinary Israeli civilians: Yaakov Danino, 17, a religious student who was unlucky enough to walk across the street to greet a friend, placing himself in direct line of the blast; Golan Turjeman and Assaf Avitan, 15, friends from childhood, who were strolling in the pedestrian precinct after a night out at a birthday party; Moshe Dahan, a 21-year-old computer student who immigrated from France five years ago, and was only joined by his parents last year; Yuri Kurganov, 20, a Ukrainian immigrant who completed his army service three months ago.
And there were more. The Palestinian Authority said, in a statement, that it expressed its "deep anger ...and pain" over the attacks. It is unlikely to have consoled their mourners.

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