For Shlomo Elul, who regularly drives the Egged Bus Co-operative’s express from Tel Aviv southeast to Jerusalem, the run last week along the busy Highway 1 began routinely. It was just before noon on July 6 and the bus, packed with commuters, was 11 km outside of the Holy City near the village of Abu Ghosh, just past the point where the superhighway begins to wind steeply up from the Mediterranean coastal plain into the Judean hills. When a young, bearded passenger with red hair appeared at his side, Elul did not suspect that anything might be amiss. But events quickly took an ugly turn. The youth leaped at the steering wheel and, shouting “God is great,” wrenched it sharply to the right. “I struggled with him to pull the wheel back to the left, but he sat down, wedged his legs on the front ledge and sent us down into the ravine,” recalled Elul. The bus careered through a steel guardrail, plunged down a rocky slope, overturned and exploded. In all, 14 people were killed and 27 others were injured. Among the casualties were three Canadian women tourists, two of whom were killed.
The Canadians were the first foreigners to die in the Palestinian intifadeh, or uprising, which began 19 months ago. But in view of the week’s events in Israel, there is a possibility
that other foreigners may suffer the fate that befell Shelley Halpenny, a 36-year-old Vancouver dentist, and Fern Rykiss, a 17-year-old Winnipeg student who died while visiting the country on a school trip. In fact, the bus attack came one day after a major setback to peace hopes in the region, hardening attitudes of Palestinians and Israelis.
New hopes had been raised by a peace plan recently launched by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The initiative called for local elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Bush administration in Washington was prodding both the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization to see the proposed elections as the first step in an admittedly long and difficult process to resolve the endemic conflict. An elected government would have provided Palestinians with local leadership and Israelis with individuals other than the hated PLO with whom to negotiate.
But last week, faced with growing pressures from his own right-wing Likud party, Shamir effectively scuttled his own election proposal. On the day before the bus tragedy, Shamir bowed to threats from three hard-line ministers of his government led by former general Ariel Sharon. Sidestepping a showdown that would have forced his resignation, Shamir
agreed to attach four conditions to his plan that in effect rendered it virtually unworkable. The conditions would exclude East Jerusalem’s 130,000 Arab citizens from taking part in the proposed elections, would rule out any elections until the intifadeh ends, would continue the policy of implanting Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and, finally, would stipulate that no independent Palestinian state would ever be established. When Shamir announced the results of his deal with the Sharon faction to a meeting of Likud’s central committee in Tel Aviv last week, the 2,600 members burst into patriotic songs, wild cheers and thunderous applause.
But the reaction elsewhere was negative. While privately angry with the tough terms, the Bush administration responded with muted criticism in the evident hope of salvaging what is left of Shamir’s initiative. “In our judgment, the Likud resolutions are not helpful,” said U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. He added, “Imposing restrictive conditions are obviously going to make it more difficult to get negotiations, and we have urged all the parties to avoid this.” PLO executive committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo bluntly declared, “Likud has killed the lie that Shamir has a peace plan.” And leaders of the Labour Party, Likud’s junior partner in the five-party ruling coalition, were incensed. Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin, coauthor of the election plan, said that he would recommend that the party withdraw from the government if it failed to find an Arab peace partner because of Likud’s conditions. Added Labour secretary general Micha Harish: “If this is an indication of how Shamir will conduct the initiative, Labour will no longer be able to serve in the government.”
Less than 24 hours later, sentiment quickly changed, however. The cause was the attack on the bus, which Israeli investigators later disclosed had been carried out by a 28-year-old Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The man, who survived the incident, had single-handedly diverted public attention from the country’s political crisis. In the process, he had also reinforced hard-line opinion among those in the country who believe no compromise is possible or even desirable with the Palestinians. Faced with an outpouring of public grief and rage, Labour Party leaders hastily postponed plans to discuss a withdrawal from the government. And the conflict in the troubled land settled back into the grim pattern that has characterized the intifadeh since it was spawned.
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