A bomb detonated on a bus in Tel Aviv brought the eight-day-old Gaza conflict to the heart of Israel Wednesday, wounding 20 and casting a pall over efforts by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others to broker a ceasefire between the two sides.
The bombing, reminiscent of the terrorist attacks on Israel a decade ago during the second Palestinian uprising, occurred around noon as the bus made its way down a multilane boulevard lined with high-rise office buildings on one side and Israeli’s Defense Ministry compound on the other.
Witnesses said they saw a man drop a bag near the back door of the bus and flee moments before the explosion. The force of the blast blew out most of the windows and caused parts of the floor to buckle, but left the bus’s frame largely intact.
“The bus filled with smoke. I felt a ringing in my ear, and then I saw that right side of the bus was on fire. I gathered myself and got off the bus,” said a passenger who gave his name as Yehuda.
Forensic workers in blue rubber gloves picked through the shards of glass searching for remains of the explosive, which they hoped would offer clues about the perpetrators. Police set up checkpoints around the city in a hunt for the bomber.
Though no one took responsibility for the attack, Hamas-linked media described it as revenge for the killing of Palestinian civilians in Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip since last week. More than 130 Palestinians have died in the Israeli offensive so far, including many civilians and at least 30 children.
Security officials said the attack suggests Palestinians were able to get explosives into Israel even during a period of high alert for the police and the Army.
“One of the things we’ve been preparing for since the beginning of the recent events is that we must be ready for more than just rockets on the south, for the possibility of [terror] attacks,” Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino told reporters at the scene of the bombing. “We’ve been preparing accordingly. I can’t remember a time of such massive preparation.”
It was not immediately clear how the attack would affect Egyptian-brokered truce efforts. Clinton’s arrival in the region yesterday coincided with reports that a ceasefire was near. By the end of the day the two sides had broken off contact, according to an official familiar with the details.
Clinton is in Cairo today for a meeting with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
Instead, Israel and Hamas further escalated the fighting overnight and this morning. The Islamic group has fired at least 130 rockets at Israel over the past 24 hours. Most either landed in open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile system known as Iron Dome. Five Israelis have died in the rocket attacks since last week.
Israel killed at least five Palestinian in airstrikes on Gaza since Tuesday night, according to Palestinian officials, who said the Israeli assault was more intensive in the past 24 hours than at any time since it began Nov. 14.
Hamas has tried several times to hit Tel Aviv with its rockets over the past week without success. The bus bombing is likely to be seen in Gaza as a significant achievement.
Though suicide bombers have targeted the city repeatedly over the past two decades, it’s been more than six years since the last major attack, when a Palestinian blew himself up at Tel Aviv’s central bus station, killing 11 people.