17 Israelis Killed in Megiddo Junction Blast

Car bomb explodes next to bus packed with soldiers; Israel set to strike PA military targets

A car bomb packed with explosives and driven by an Islamic Jihad activist from the Jenin area blew up yesterday next to an Egged bus on the Tel Aviv-Tiberias route outside Megiddo Prison, killing 17 of the passengers and wounding 47 others.

Thirty-six wounded were taken to Afula Hospital, where one died; three people with serious head wounds were sent to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, while another was taken to Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center in Hadera. Five of the injured were released from hospital last night, while the rest, including two still fighting for their lives, were still undergoing treatment.

Government sources said Israel would take "appropriate measures" in response. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer yesterday afternoon to discuss the Israeli retaliation, postponed until Saturday night his departure for the U.S., where he is scheduled to meet with President George W. Bush on Monday. Coalition and opposition rightists called for a massive Israeli invasion of the territories, as well as the deportation, capture or killing of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and a lengthy occupation to follow.

The names of 15 of the 17 fatalities were released for publication last night: Sgt. Dotan Reisel, Corp. Liron Avitan, Sgt. Sariel Katz, Sgt. Sivan Viner, Sgt. Violetta Hizgayev, Sgt. Yigal Nedipur, Staff Sgt. Eliran Buskila, Corp. Vladimir Merari, Staff Sgt. Zvika Gelberd, Adi Dahan, Staff Sgt. David Stanislavsky, Staff Sgt. Gennadi Issakov, Corp. Dennis Bleuman and Zion Agmon.

Bush as well as European leaders condemned the attack, as did the Palestinian Authority.

As an initial response to the attack, a small force of armored personnel carriers and tanks entered Jenin yesterday afternoon. The troops imposed a curfew on part of the town and mounted searches for wanted men. Israel Defense Forces sources insisted last night, however, that the Jenin operation would not be the only reaction to the terror attack.

Since the end of Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF has been routinely conducting incursions into Nablus, Jenin, Qalqiliyah and Tul Karm, but has stayed out of Ramallah. With the defense establishment holding Arafat responsible for the terrorist attacks, Ramallah, his base in the West Bank, may now become at target for IDF operations.

The PA statement said it had "no connection" to the attack, and PA official sources said last night that Arafat had ordered the Palestinian security services to arrest "all members of the military wings of Islamic Jihad and Hamas."

Israeli security sources were skeptical, noting that the PA has often declared the military wings of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad illegal, and even when they made arrests, quickly released those jailed. In any case, Abdullah al-Shami, a Gaza leader of Islamic Jihad, confirmed his organization carried out the attack. A caller to the French news agency Agence France Presse said that the driver of the car was a Jenin man, Hamze Samudi. The attack, said the statement to AFP, "Took place on the 35th anniversary of the occupation of Jerusalem. We tell our enemies that we will continue to destroy their shields," a reference to Operation Defensive Shield, the military operation in April that the army said hd destroyed the Islamic Jihad infrastructure in Jenin.

Most of the passengers on Bus 830, which left Tel Aviv early yesterday morning were soldiers, and 13 of the 17 dead were army conscripts. They routinely use this bus line because it stops at several army bases in the north. Some survivors noted that the bus, which travels through Wadi Ara, has very few stops in that mostly Arab district.

The explosion came at 7:15 A.M. The preliminary police investigation found that the Renault Kango carrying the bomb - which police say may have been as large as 100 kilograms - was stolen from the Lod area early this year and bore license plates from a Subaru stolen in Petah Tikva. That, said police officers at the scene of the explosion, made it relatively easy for the car to travel from the West Bank into Israel without being stopped by the army.

The scene on the highway outside Megiddo Prison - where guards said they heard security prisoners cheering when they heard the explosion and realized what it was - was horrifying. The car itself was reduced to a small clump of burning metal. The bus was knocked off its wheels and rolled over at least twice, before ending up leaning against a guard rail off the road, nearly 100 meters away from the blast. It caught fire when its fuel tank exploded almost immediately after the original blast; by the time the fire was put out, only the blackened skeleton of the chassis remained.

Along the highway, rescue workers, who arrived quickly after guards on duty at the prison called for help, worked triage, separating the dead from the most seriously wounded, and the moderately wounded from those lightly wounded enough to walk on their own. Most of the wounded were taken to the Afula Hospital, which has treated more than 400 terrorist casualties since the hostilities began in late September 2000.

At first, those who could make it off the bus broke through windows and smashed open doors to get free. But as the fire swept through the vehicle, many wounded on board, unable to move on their own, were killed by the fire. One report described a young soldier and his girlfriend, dead in a charred embrace.

Zvi Avraham, an army sergeant, got on the bus at Karkur, on his way to his base near the Golani Junction. Interviewed at Afula Hospital, where he was being treated for some cuts and shrapnel wounds, he said, "Just before Megiddo there was a terrible explosion. We rolled, I think, and I felt like I was being thrown around inside the bus until it stopped. Somehow I managed to get up and found a window and jumped out. I rolled on the ground because I thought I was on fire."

Haim Toubol, like others on the bus, served at a northern base. "I was in the fifth or sixth seat behind the driver. When the bomb went off I felt the bus shake, like firecrackers, and then I found myself sitting outside on the ground."

Among those on the bus were two tourists, Marina Yakamochik and her sister Svetlana Salina. Behind them, Marina's son, Anton Brodnik and his fiancee Ella were talking. "They arrived during the night and we picked them up at the airport, took them to the central bus station and we were on our way home," said Brodnik. "We haven't seen them in a couple of years so we had lots to talk about. Suddenly there was an explosion and a flash in front of us. The bus rolled over. I jumped to the door, I shoved Ella outside, and then went back for my mother, and then for my aunt." His mother and aunt had not been in the country more than two hours before they ended up in Afula Hospital, victims of another round of violence in the conflict.

For bus driver Micky Harel, it was his fourth brush with death along the same route in northern Israel. He escaped with a few cuts and bruises and managed to drag some passengers to safety. Then the flames grew. "I was in despair because I couldn't get any more of them out," he said from his hospital bed in Afula, his charred ticket dispenser on the night table beside him.