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Palestinian Terrorist Attack Injures 64 in Southern Israel

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

About 64 people were wounded, two seriously, when a young Palestinian man tossed two grenades in a crowded bus terminal in southern Israel Monday, witnesses said. Bystanders immediately tackled and beat the assailant, who later confessed to the attack in Israeli police custody, authorities said.

The assault in the southern desert city of Beersheba jolted the three-way Middle East peace summit under way in Wye Mills, Md., where President Clinton and a host of American mediators are struggling to break a bitter 19-month deadlock in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Seizing on the violence, the Israelis postponed a scheduled negotiating session, saying that from now on they would discuss only security issues.

It was at least the 10th attack on Israelis in the last three months, a campaign of violence that has escalated along with a renewed American-led push to reinvigorate the stalled Middle East peace process.

At least 20 of the wounded were soldiers waiting for a bus to take them to a nearby military base when the attack took place.

"I saw him throw it and run," said Donna Cohen, 19, an Israeli soldier who lay in her hospital bed with minor injuries Monday afternoon. "I didn't understand anything, I had no idea, I just heard the explosion and was hit in my leg with shrapnel."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat contacted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to condemn the attack and express sympathy for the victims. He said he had ordered an investigation.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which was condemned by Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike. Palestinian security officials said the assailant was a supporter of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has carried out bombings in Israel in the past, and had served time in an Israeli jail. He was reported to live in West Bank territory under Palestinian control.

Hamas has threatened repeatedly to intensify its campaign of bloodshed to avenge the killing of two of its top operatives by Israeli soldiers last month. Israel complains that Arafat's Palestinian Authority has balked at cracking down on Hamas.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, justified the attack although he did not specify whether his group played a role in carrying it out. "As long as the Palestinian people are living under occupation and repression resistance will be natural and legal," he said.

Like other spasms of violence that have punctuated critical negotiations in the past, Monday's assault was widely interpreted as an attempt to derail the peace talks in Maryland, which are strenuously opposed by extremists of both sides.

If that was the goal, it was unclear whether it will work. There was no outright break in the talks despite demands by hard-line allies of Netanyahu that he walk out immediately.

The Israeli leader, who was awakened in Maryland at 2 a.m. with the news, reiterated Israel's position that it will not sign an agreement to withdraw troops from a further portion of the West Bank, as the Clinton administration has proposed, unless the Palestinians launch what Israel considers a tough crackdown against extremists.