The blast went off around 7:14 am local time when the suicide attacker drove his car alongside the bus and detonated the powerful bomb inside his car. The explosion caused the bus to flip over several times and burst into flames.
The attack occurred near the town of Afula during the early morning commute from Tel Aviv to Tiberias. According to witnesses, the bus route carried many Israeli soldiers returning to their bases in the West Bank.
The militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack at the Megiddo junction, saying it was planned to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Islamic Jihad said the bomber, whose name they withheld, came from the Jenin region in the West Bank, which Israel considers a “breeding ground” for Palestinian suicide attackers.
“A seeker of martyrdom… from the Jerusalem Brigades detonated an explosives-laden car that he drove near a Zionist bus near Megiddo junction,” the group said in a statement.
Wednesday’s attack marks a departure from previous suicide assaults since it was carried out using a vehicle instead by individuals on foot and wearing less-powerful explosives belts.
Within hours, dozens of Israeli tanks rolled into Jenin and helicopters fired on one neighborhood, residents reported. There were no immediate reports of injuries or casualties. Israeli security officials described the operation as a routine patrol.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with his security cabinet early today to decide its response to the attack at the Megiddo junction. No plan was immediately announced, although the cabinet is expected to convene later today.
Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat condemned the attack and rejected Israel’s accusations that his government was involved in the bombing.
“The Palestinian Authority is still committed to peace which can achieve security for both peoples,” Arafat’s government said in a statement.
The bombing came one day after Arafat and other Palestinian officials met with Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet to discuss ways to better control suicide attacks.
In Washington, President George Bush denounced Wednesday’s bombing and urged the Palestinian Authority to undertake reforms for its security forces to stop future attacks.
“The president this morning condemns the … terror attack that took place in Israel in the strongest terms,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
The president is scheduled to meet with Sharon at the White House on Monday.
The Megiddo attack was the deadliest since Israel ended its six-week military campaign against Palestinian militants. The Israeli campaign, called Operation Defensive Shield, began in response to a series of suicide bombings in March.