(April 19, 2016 / JNS) The smoke billowing from a burning bus. The sirens of the first responders. The smell of explosives. All of those came back to haunt Jerusalem on Monday when a bomb detonated on Egged Bus 12 as it made its way from the Talpiot neighborhood to the city center. Twenty-one people were injured in the blast, which shattered what had been relative silence on Israel’s terrorism front during the months of March and April.
As of Tuesday, two of the wounded individuals were in serious condition, another five were in moderate condition, and the others were described as lightly hurt. Two children, ages 10 and 13, were among the wounded. The bus driver was unharmed.
According to the Israeli security establishment, there were 171 “substantial” terror attacks in the country in August 2015, rising to 223 that September and 620 in October. Then the monthly number of attacks began decreasing, from 326 in November to 246 in December, 169 in January, 154 in February, 20 in March, and only three during the first week of April.
But Monday’s bus bombing provided a rude awakening. The blast took place at 5:50 p.m. on Moshe Baram Street, a major artery in southern Jerusalem. The street was jam-packed with cars during that evening’s rush hour. Flames engulfed the bus as a result of the explosion, and an empty bus nearby also caught fire. The billows of smoke could be seen from miles away.
“I got on the bus with my daughter; we heard a loud explosion and the entire bus was filled with smoke,” said Rachel Dadon, who sustained minor wounds. “The glass windows shattered. I looked for my daughter and I saw her burnt. I pray that she makes it through.” Dadon’s daughter, 15-year-old Eden, was rushed to the intensive care unit in a city hospital.
The bus driver, Moshe Levi, told Israel Hayom that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the minutes before the explosion.
“Everything was fine,” he said. “I was in a traffic jam on Moshe Baram Street and then suddenly a large explosion rocked the back of the bus. I opened the doors and shouted at everyone to run away.” Levi was admitted to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and treated for shock before being discharged.
Six firefighting crews arrived at the scene shortly after the explosion. “Despite the immense heat and the fear that there would be more explosions inside the bus, they charged ahead into the bus to find trapped passengers and began extinguishing the fire and contain it,” said Maj. Roni Sonino, who was in charge of the Israeli firefighters at the scene.
Meanwhile, medics arrived and began evacuating the wounded. Initially, Israeli police were not sure whether the explosion was deliberate or a result of a technical glitch. But an hour later, authorities were certain that an explosive device had detonated, and Jerusalem District Police Commander Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy said there is “no doubt that this is a terror attack.”
One of the seriously wounded individuals carried no identification, but it is still unclear whether he perpetrated the attack. Israeli police sources said that they are investigating all available leads to determine who was behind the bombing. In addition, Jerusalem will be reinforced with more police as a result of the incident. Halevy said that law enforcement had received no concrete warning of an impending attack. He added that Jerusalem police forces have already taken steps to prepare for the upcoming Passover holiday.
“We are ready for the possibility that someone may try to perpetrate an attack in Jerusalem at any given moment,” he said.
Avraham Rivkind, the head of the Shock Trauma Unit at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center Ein Kerem hospital, said the event took him back to the height of terrorism in the capital in the previous decade. “The X-ray images showed nails and fasteners penetrated the victims’ bodies, like in previous attacks in the capital,” he said.
Asher Bezalel, whose son Akiva was admitted to Shaare Zedek Medical Center for minor wounds, told Israel Hayom that “Akiva sat at the front and heard a massive explosion. He got scared and saw the driver open the door and people rushing out. He was in shock. I tried to call him but he didn’t respond. We were worried until we got a phone call from a paramedic, who said he was being evacuated and he was in good condition. Thank God, we had a miracle. Akiva is supposed to celebrate his bar mitzvah in a few months.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wished the wounded a speedy recovery, and said, “We will hunt down those who prepared this device, we will reach those who dispatched them, and we will reach those who masterminded this; we will settle the score with those terrorists.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the number of terrorist attacks in Israel has dropped during the past couple of months because terrorists have realized that they achieve nothing.
“Usually it is the perpetrator who gets killed, not one of us. I believe a counter-terrorism policy that is motivated by rational thinking rather than gut reactions, one that is motivated by good judgement and responsibility, will ultimately prevail,” Ya’alon said.
President Reuven Rivlin said that “when we have a day like this—a terror tunnel is exposed in the morning thanks to the work of our dedicated security forces, and then civilians are rushed to hospitals while returning from work—it is clear that our fight against terrorism is not over; we are going to hunt down anyone who seeks to do us harm until peace is guaranteed.”
Gilad Bock, the head of the Israel Bar Association’s Health Forum and a paramedic, was the first to arrive at the scene. He took one of the victims who were seriously wounded to the hospital, and then, while standing outside the emergency room, he was asked to assist a woman in labor who was about to give birth in a car. “It was surreal,” he said. “Here I was, with one hand drenched in the blood of from the bus victim, and the other hand was covered with the blood of the placenta. The situation was very uplifting.”
According to Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, the attack was carried out with a small improvised explosive device. Shin Bet officials said the person who carried out the attack was probably acting on his own and was not part of a larger terrorist cell.
The attack is considered unique when compared to other terror methods used during the wave of violence in Israel over the past six months—stabbings, car-rammings, and shootings. Explosive devices were very common during the second Palestinian intifada more than a decade ago. That said, terrorist organizations have repeatedly tried to carry out more sophisticated attacks over the past several months. The recent wave of Palestinian attacks did not include bombings until Monday, thanks to the ongoing counter-terrorism efforts of the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces.
According to the Shin Bet, some 50 major attacks have been thwarted this year, including six abductions, three suicide attacks, 25 shooting attacks, 12 “sacrifice” attacks (in which the attacker knows he will most likely be killed by first responders or others), and four bombings. In 2015, the Shin Bet thwarted 239 major attacks.
Security officials stressed last week that the dwindling number of terror attacks was merely an “unstable and challenging lull.” They stressed that the upcoming Passover holiday, followed by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in June, will serve as a key security test.
The fact that Palestinian terrorist organizations—including Hamas and Islamic Jihad—were probably not behind the attack suggests that Israeli security forces’ crackdown on terror networks is still working. But as the last six months have demonstrated, Israeli intelligence agencies’ major challenge comes in the form of lone-wolf terrorists, who decide to carry out attacks without orders from above and do so without giving any indications of their plans.
That said, the lone-wolf argument may not be enough to explain Monday’s attack—due to the nature of the attack. The attacker, or multiple attackers, used an explosive device rather than a cold weapon (such as a knife). This will likely set off alarm bells among counter-terrorism officials because the assembly of a bomb, however small, requires significant planning and special means.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad both praised the attack on Monday.
“This action is a welcome development,” Hamas said. “It was carried out in response to the crimes of the Zionist occupation against the Palestinian people and as a natural response to the occupation’s crimes in Al-Aqsa mosque and its contamination.”
Islamic Jihad called the bus attack a “natural response to the crimes of the Zionist occupation.”