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Jerusalem Car Bomb Lowers Hopes for Effective Ceasefire

By Lee Hockstader

A powerful car bomb packed with nails was detonated in a narrow street of downtown Jerusalem Thursday, killing two Jewish passers-by, including the daughter of a major Israeli politician, and deepening the sense of crisis here.

The bombing, together with firefights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that left at least two Palestinians dead, dampened hope that a ceasefire agreement reached early Thursday would swiftly take effect.

In Beirut, the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the blast, the second to strike a Jewish neighborhood in West Jerusalem in two days. The group, which has been inactive in recent years, said in a fax to the Reuter news agency that the attack was “in response to the crimes of the Israeli enemy against our defenseless Palestinian people.”

Nine people were wounded in the explosion near Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s main open-air fruit and vegetable market. It shattered a relatively busy afternoon when many Israelis shop for the Jewish Sabbath starting Friday evening.

After the car bombing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for having encouraged terror attacks by releasing Islamic militants from Palestinian jails last month.

Arafat, asked by reporters about the bombing, said, “We are against it completely.” But Arafat disappointed Israeli officials when he balked at broadcasting a televised appeal for a ceasefire at 2 p.m. (7 a.m. EST) as he had reportedly agreed. He declined to do so later as well.

On both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, there were expressions of rage.

Immediately after the bombing, knots of Israelis chanted “Death to the Arabs!” as a thick pall of black smoke billowed above the burning car. In the West Bank and Gaza, thousands attended funerals of six Palestinians killed in clashes Wednesday, and vowed to press on with their uprising.

Nonetheless, each side issued its own written statement calling for calm and an easing of violence, and there were indications that the fighting that has raged here for most of the week was slackening, at least to a degree.

For their part, the Israelis lifted the tight closure they had imposed with army roadblocks on major Palestinian cities and towns, and withdrew tanks from the outskirts or urban areas.

On the Palestinian side, Arafat was reported to have taken steps to ease the incitement in the official media and discourage Palestinian gunmen from firing on Israeli positions. Palestinian police restrained some demonstrators assaulting Israeli positions.

Still, it remained to be seen whether either side could brake the momentum of violence that has gathered in five weeks of continuous fighting, leaving more than 160 people dead, the large majority of them Palestininas and Arab citizens of Israel.

“We are still in the crisis, but there is a chance now,” said Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Committee, a Palestinian think tank. “Yesterday there was no chance, now there is a chance.”

The chance seemed brightest on Thursday, when it was reported that Barak and Arafat would issue a simultaneous joint statement to be broadcast on television and radio.