New Jerusalem violence as Israel mulls pullback

 

A Palestinian gunman opened fire at an Israeli bus at one of Jerusalem's busiest intersections earlier today, killing at least one and wounding at least 50 before being shot dead, police and hospitals said.

The shooting occurred as Israel prepared for further withdrawals from Palestinian areas, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon postponed a trip to the United States that could have led to a confrontation with US President George W. Bush.

Washington has been pushing Israel to pull troops from reoccupied areas as it tries to calm tensions and bolster Arab and Muslim support for its anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks on the United States. "There is no doubt that we will do everything to hit back at these terrorists," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Channel Two television after the bus attack.

But asked if a widely expected pullback from the West Bank city of Qaqilya would go ahead, Peres said: "I think so, yes."

Witnesses said a lone gunman had stood in the middle of the street firing an automatic rifle at the packed number 25 bus in northern Jerusalem near French Hill, a neighbourhood built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Bleeding passengers spilled out of the red-and-white vehicle as motorists abandoned their cars and fled in panic.

Blood trickled from the bus onto the pavement. Bullets had shattered about 10 of its windows.

"We saw a Palestinian terrorist shoot at us from the outside. He didn't stop shooting," a woman passenger said.

Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy said the attacker, whose body lay in the middle of the street, belonged to the radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and had fired nearly an entire ammunition clip, or about 30 bullets.

This junction is secured by the Jerusalem police around the clock. Two border policemen who were at the hitchhiking post closed in on the terrorist, and one of them shot him dead. A soldier and an armed civilian joined in, Levy said.

Police pursued two unarmed Palestinians seen running from the scene, but it was unclear if they were involved, he added.

Before the attack, Israeli ministers quoted Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer as saying in the weekly cabinet meeting that troops may begin to pull out of Qalqilya later in the day.

"I don't know if it will be today," spokesman Raanan Gissin said before the attack. "The intention is to start it as soon as possible, but of course the conditions have to be present to execute this kind of withdrawal."