IN A surge of Mideast violence, eight killed in bomb blasts, shootings

Sunday, September 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Arab militants unleashed a wave of attacks Sunday against Israel, including a suicide bomber who honed in on soldiers and civilians getting off a crowded train, blowing himself up and killing three Israelis.

The surge of violence, which also included four retaliatory missile strikes by Israeli helicopters, threatened to scuttle possible truce talks aimed at ending more than 11 months of Mideast violence.

Overall, militants staged two bombings, one attempted bombing and a lethal drive-by shooting. Five Israelis were killed along with three Arab militants who died while carrying out the attacks. About 40 Israelis were wounded.

The rapid-fire attacks took place within a few hours, unusual even by the standards of the current conflict. Three separate groups claimed responsibility for violence that stretched from the northern town of Nahariya on the Mediterranean coast, to deep inside the West Bank, to the Gaza Strip in the south.

From Israel's perspective, the suicide attack at the train station in Nahariya was particularly significant, because police said the suspected bomber was an Israeli Arab man, Muhammad Saker Habashi, 55.

Israeli Arabs, who account for more than 1 million of Israel's 6.5 million citizens, have long complained of discrimination, are deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and took part in protests at the beginning of the current uprising nearly a year ago.

But they have been only rarely implicated in attacks against Israel, and no Israeli Arab has previously acted as a suicide bomber. If they were to stage bombings and shootings, it would vastly complicate Israel's security problems.

Israeli Arabs live inside Israel proper, and do not face tough restrictions on their movements, as do the 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

As the train pulled into the station in Nahariya, soldiers and civilians stepped onto the platform, and the bomber moved toward them and detonated his explosives in the crowd Sunday morning, the beginning of the Israeli work week.

``I was standing nearby and I heard a great explosion. It took me a minute to come to my senses and then I saw glass everywhere and I saw people running like crazy,'' witness Avi Levy told Israeli television. ``People were crying and hysterical.''

Police and ambulances rushed to the scene, taking more than 30 people to hospitals, though most had relatively minor injuries.

Police said they found Habashi's ID card at the scene. They also recovered a hand of the bomber, and were checking the fingerprints to see if it belonged to Habashi, who once ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the nearby village of Abu Snan.

Police went to Habashi's house last week, suspecting him of links to militants, but he wasn't present. At the Habashi home on Sunday afternoon, family members refused to discuss the bombing with an Associated Press reporter.

Habashi had links to the radical Islamic group Hamas, according to the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Hamas, which has carried out many suicide attacks against Israel in recent years, claimed responsibility for Sunday's bombing in phone calls to Arab television channels.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have been attempting to arrange truce talks for nearly three weeks, but the daily violence has undermined efforts. The two are expected to meet in coming days, but Sunday's upheavals again raised political tensions.

The Israeli government blamed Arafat for failing to halt attacks. ``The Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to stop these bombers,'' said Israeli spokesman Arye Mekel.

The Palestinian leadership rejected the Israeli charge. ``The Palestinian leadership repeats its condemnations of all attacks that target civilians, whether Palestinians or Israelis.''

In other violence Sunday:

_ A Palestinian gunman in a jeep sprayed automatic rifle fire on a van carrying Israeli teachers to schools in the West Bank. Two Israelis _ the driver and a woman teacher _ were killed and four teachers were injured in the shooting in the Jordan Valley, police said. The radical group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, a Palestinian television station reported.

_ A car bomb exploded while the vehicle was waiting at a stoplight at a busy intersection in central Israel, near Netanya. The Palestinian driver was killed and five vehicles, including a bus, were set on fire, police said. Three people were hurt. Police speculated that the driver was heading to Netanya, the scene of several previous attacks. It was not clear whether the driver intentionally detonated the bomb, or if it went off prematurely.

_ Israeli troops fired on three Palestinians who were attempting to plant a bomb near a border fence in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army said. One Palestinian was killed, a second was wounded, and the third escaped, according to the army and the Palestinians. The militant Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility in an anonymous phone call to AP.

Israel responded with helicopter missile strikes at four different sites in the West Bank, damaging buildings in each instance, but causing no injuries.

The helicopters hammered two buildings belonging to Arafat's Fatah movement and the affiliated Tanzim militia in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Israelis also pounded Palestinian security offices in Jericho and Kabatiya.

Meanwhile, Sharon's Cabinet was to debate a plan to set up a military ``buffer zone'' between Israel and the West Bank in a bid to prevent further infiltrations by Palestinian militants. The area would be off-limits to Palestinians except those who live there, and troops would arrest intruders.

Arafat sent a letter to President Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other world leaders, calling the Israeli proposal ``a racist separation plan.''

The more than 11 months of fighting have killed 611 people on the Palestinian side and 170 on the Israeli side.