A bomb exploded on a bus near Tel Aviv on Sunday, shortly after it was evacuated, police said, adding that an initial investigation indicates that it was a terrorist attack.
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After citing a suspicious bag on the bus, a passenger had alerted the driver, who parked the vehicle and ordered all passengers to disembark. Shortly thereafter, after a police bomb squad had arrived at the site and began inspecting the suspicious object, the bomb exploded, shattering all the bus windows and charring the sides of the vehicle.
None were wounded in the blast.
According to police, a passenger noticed the suspicious object - a black bag - as the No. 240 bus made its round through the city of Bat Yam, and alerted the driver. The driver stopped the bus and ordered passengers to disembark on the corner of Katzenelson and Mivtza Sinai streets in Bat Yam.
"One of the passengers told me that there is a suspicious bag on the bus," bus driver Michael Yuger said, recounting the moments leading up to the blast, "I asked, 'Whose [bag]?' and was told 'No one's.' I arrived at the bus stop and got the passengers to disembark. Most of the passengers went on to catch other buses to get where they needed to go, and I stayed [by my bus] with another two people. Then a police car arrived and cleared people from the area. Ten minutes later, the bus exploded."
Yuger said that there were 12 people onboard his bus and that they listened when he instructed them to get off, and did so quickly. He added that he didn't see any suspicious persons get on the bus.
A passenger on the bus, David Papo, said he examined the suspicious bag before disembarking. "I opened it and saw something [that looked suspicious]... After I took a closer look, I saw a red wire coming out of it and I immediately understood what it was." He then disembarked from the bus together with the other passengers.
It is not yet clear who planted the bomb, though police and Shin Bet believe that it was a Palestinian terrorist attack, and are treating it as such. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Police began a comprehensive search after a suspect that planted the bomb, and called on the public to be especially aware, amid suspicion of additional attacks.
The commander of Israel Police's Ayalon District, Nathan Bozna, said that the police emergency line (100) received a call at 2:20 P.M. informing it of the suspicious object. "A Dan [bus company] driver that left Bnei Brak for Bat Yam stopped on Mivtza Sinai Street after a suspicious bag was discovered in the back of the bus. The suspicion grew and the bus driver acted properly and evacuated the bus," Bozna said.
Two minutes later, Bozna said, a police car arrived at the scene and the officers acted to distance the passengers from the bus. "When the crowd was about 15 meters from the bus a great explosion occurred," he said. "We are calling on the public to increase their vigilance on buses and any place where there are crowds in case there is another attempt to harm our citizens."
The explosion came at a sensitive time in Mideast peace efforts. Israel and the Palestinians resumed talks last summer for the first time in nearly five years, and the U.S.-brokered negotiations have made little visible progress. The explosion threatened to further poison what has become a tense and negative atmosphere.
"The incident in Bat Yam illustrates the fact that the threat of terrorism is lurking in the background, especially these days, when there are attempts to advance the peace talks," Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said.
Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad reported extensively on the explosion on their websites, but refrained from claiming responsibility. No statements were made by the organizations’ leaders either.
A Hamas news website had the event as its top story for hours, and included many analyses, too, which pointed out the importance of the attack. “Whether the attack was carried out by an organization, or an individual acting alone, it shook the Israeli feeling that they are in control, and that their home front is impenetrable,” it wrote.
Hamas officials seem to think that Israel will take advantage of the attack to extract more concessions from the Palestinians in the ongoing negotiations.
The last explosion on a Tel Aviv bus occurred in November 2012, on the No. 142. At least 28 people were wounded in that incident. An Israeli Arab pleaded guilty earlier this month to planting the bomb for political reasons.
A decade ago, Israel experienced a rash of Palestinian suicide bombings on buses, in restaurants and in other public spaces. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis died in several years of fighting.
But tensions have subsided in recent years. The neighboring West Bank, however, has seen a recent uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence, though senior Israeli officials believe the various incidents there have not been connected to each other.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.