The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad both reportedly took responsibility for the bombing. Islamic Jihad said the attack was retaliation for the killing of one of its members, Mohammed Sidr, by Israeli troops last week.
The bus exploded around 9 p.m. local time in the French Hill section of western Jerusalem, according to news reports. The bus was an “extra long” style designed to carry more passengers than a normal city bus and was full of people at the time of the explosion, the Associated Press reported.
Television news reports from the scene showed rescue workers attending to injured passengers near the burnt and twisted frame of the bus. A Reuters correspondent on the scene reported several dead and critically injured people lying in the street.
Dore Gold, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the bus was on its way from Jerusalem’s Old City, near the Western Wall, to a predominantly religious neighborhood near the center of town.
Tuesday’s attack followed two Aug. 12 suicide bombings, which killed two Israelis and left dozens wounded. The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade took responsibility for those attacks, which were the first since the three main Palestinian Islamic militant groups announced a truce on June 29.
Some militant leaders, however, recently said they would avenge Israeli military attacks on key militant leaders that also continued after the June 29 cease-fire.
Gold said that Sidr, the Islamic Jihad member killed last week, was targeted because he was a “ticking bomb,” actively planning an imminent attack on Israeli civilians.
Gold also blamed Palestinian authorities for Tuesday’s attack because they have failed to crack down on terrorists.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was reportedly meeting with Islamic militants Tuesday night in the Gaza Strip in an effort to persuade them to stop attacks on Israelis, denounced the bombing.
“I announce my strong condemnation of this horrible act which does not serve the interest of the Palestinian people at all, and I have given my instructions to the security minister to launch an investigation,” Abbas said.
The internationally backed “road map” for Middle Eastern peace, promoted by President Bush and supported by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, calls for Palestinians to dismantle terrorist groups, continue democratic reforms, and reiterate Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.
Israel is obligated to support the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, end work on settlements in contested territory, and work to normalize Palestinian life by ending occupation of towns and easing blockades.
After the Tuesday bus bombing, Israel suspended the planned hand over of four West Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority.
“We are suspending the withdrawals. We will have to evaluate the situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yoni Peled told the Reuters news service. “While we reach out on the one hand we get just more suicide attacks.”
In the U.S., White House officials condemned the attack and called on Palestinian leaders to do more to stop terrorism.
“We condemn this vicious act of terrorism in the strongest terms. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims and to those injured,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said. “We call upon the Palestinian Authority to act to dismantle terrorist networks.”