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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bombing Sets Back Peace in Mideast

COMBINED REPORTS. -- JERUSALEM


A suicide car bomb exploded Friday in a Jerusalem market crowded with Israelis shopping for the Sabbath, killing the two bombers and wounding 21 others.


In response, Israel's Cabinet suspended implementation of the new peace accord with the Palestinians.


Police said they received an anonymous telephone call claiming responsibility in the name of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings and has been trying to sabotage the peace accord. Police were checking the claim.


Palestinian negotiators said by holding up the agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government was playing into the hands of the militants.


"This is exactly what they want,'' Palestinian negotiator Hassan Asfour said. "This is political blackmail and it's not helpful. We hope that Mr. Netanyahu will not yield to the pressure and demands of the right wing in his government.''


In the attack, a red Fiat drove slowly toward the main intersection at the entrance of the outdoor Mahane Yehuda market at about 9:45 a.m., smoke coming out of the hood and windows.


"People started to shout 'car on fire,'" said Yair Cohen, a bus company employee who was buying cookies.


A series of explosions went off inside the car and flames shot three meters into the air. Shoppers fled, screaming, as black smoke engulfed the area.


The force of the blast turned the car into a mass of twisted metal. Israel radio said two suitcases filled with explosive materials were found nearby, suggesting the blast went off prematurely and that the assailants had planned to set off a more powerful explosion.


A charred, dismembered corpse, covered by tires, lay several meters away. Streams of soot-black water ran in the street. Another barelegged body lay in the street, face down.


"There was hysteria, people were running,'' said Eliad Duan, an Israeli border policeman who was patrolling the market and was lightly injured. Soldiers and police wearing plastic gloves held back the crowds. "It's dangerous - stay back!'' they shouted.


After the attack, several right-wing Israeli activists gathered at the scene chanting "Death to Arabs" and slogans against Netanyahu. Police said a number of arrests had been made and at least one Arab was injured by stone throwers.


Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai identified the two men killed in the blast as "terrorists." Of the 21 people wounded, one was in serious condition.


It was the second bomb attack on Mahane Yehuda in 16 months. Fifteen people were killed there in July 1997 by two Hamas suicide bombers.


When Friday's explosion went off, the Israeli Cabinet had just gathered about a kilometer away, at Netanyahu's office, to discuss the peace agreement signed last month at the White House. Israel agreed to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank over 12 weeks, in exchange for a Palestinian campaign against Islamic militants.


The agreement cannot be implemented until it is ratified by the Cabinet. Netanyahu's adviser David Bar-Illan said at the start of the session that he had expected a vote later Friday.


However, the session broke off when word of the attack reached the ministers. The meeting was resumed shortly after noon, with ministers deciding to suspend the ratification process indefinitely.


"The government of Israel will resume the discussion on the agreement after it verifies that the Palestinian Authority is taking vigorous steps for a relentless fight against terrorist organizations and their infrastructure,'' a Cabinet statement said.


Ratification had already been delayed by a week as Netanyahu pushed for specific Palestinian commitments to arrest suspected killers of Israelis and take other security steps.


The Cabinet also demanded clarifications from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the procedure for revoking clauses in the PLO founding charter calling for Israel's destruction.


The Wye River agreement refers to the procedure, but is vague enough to allow different interpretations.


It says the Palestine National Council and other Palestinian organizations will meet in mid-December to "reaffirm'' a letter by Arafat to U.S. President Bill Clinton in which the Palestinian leader spells out which clauses are being annulled.


The Palestinians dispute Israel's contention that the agreement calls for the PNC to hold a vote on the clauses.


Arafat's office urged Netanyahu to proceed with ratification and suggested that the bombing could have been staged by extremists from either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


In Washington, Clinton called the attack a "cowardly act" aimed at derailing the peace process but said he hoped its momentum would soon be regained.


Netanyahu had seemed assured of Cabinet approval for the deal before Friday's attack.


But the explosion was certain to increase pressure on him to back out of it from hardliners inside and outside his coalition who oppose any transfer of land to the Palestinians.


"In this situation, of course, I can't vote for this agreement. I will see what they [Palestinians] will do in the near future," said Science Minister Silvan Shalom, one of the perceived "waverers" in Netanyahu's 17-member Cabinet.


Israel and the Palestinian Authority blame Hamas for a suicide bomb attack in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 29 that narrowly missed a bus taking Jewish settler children to school. An Israeli soldier in an escort jeep was killed.


Hamas denied any part in that attack. Several of its militants and political figures have been detained by the Palestinian Authority since the new peace deal was signed. Its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is under house arrest.


The movement has pledged to continue attacks on Israelis in defiance of the new interim peace accord and any security crackdown that stems from it.