The explosion tore through the bus just before 8:00 am, blowing out the roof and sides, and throwing bodies into the street. The bus, packed with high school students and office workers, was traveling from the city’s southern suburb toward its center.
Among the dead were at least two teen-agers. At least fifty-five people were wounded, police said. It is not known how many passengers were on the bus.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made an unusual visit to the scene about 90 minutes after the explosion and surveyed the wreckage, walking past a row of body bags lined along the sidewalk.
“This terrible thing that we see is a continuation of Palestinian terrorism, and against that terrorism we have to fight and struggle — and that is what we will do,” Sharon said, without specifying what approach Israel would take.
Sharon convened an emergency meeting with his security cabinet shortly afterward to decide on a response to the attack, the city’s deadliest in six years.
Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat condemned Tuesday’s bombing, but Sharon rejected Arafat’s condemnation, holding him accountable for the ongoing suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.
Jerusalem has been on high alert since Monday morning when Israeli intelligence reports indicated that as many as five potential suicide bombers were in the city planning to strike Israeli targets.
Despite the heightened security in Jerusalem, Israeli authorities suspect the suicide assailant walked to Bethlehem yesterday, several miles from the scene of the attack. Carrying a suitcase full of explosives, he boarded the No. 32 bus near Gilo in the morning, a southern Jerusalem neighborhood built on land seized by Israel during the 1967 war.
The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the bomber as Mohammed al-Ghoul, 22, from the Al Faraa refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus.
A Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said Hamas would stop its attacks if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“We don’t have the power to liberate all of Palestine (with these attacks),” Rantisi told the Associated Press. In the past, Hamas has maintained that it would fight until all of Israel is destroyed.
President Bush condemned the bus bombing in “the strongest possible terms,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said this morning.
The Jerusalem attack came as President Bush prepares to unveil a framework for creating an independent Palestinian state. McClellan said the president will not announce the plan Tuesday, but will come forward with it later this week. McClellan said the decision to postpone announcing the plan was unrelated to the Jerusalem bus bombing.