JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – A Palestinian rammed a bulldozer into vehicles on a busy Jerusalem street on Tuesday, ahead of a visit by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and wounded 16 people before being shot dead.
The attack, just down the road from the hotel where Obama was to stay, was the second such incident in Jewish west Jerusalem in three weeks.
“Today’s bulldozer attack is a reminder of what Israelis have courageously lived with on a daily basis for far too long,” Obama told a news conference in Amman. “I strongly condemn this attack and will always support Israel in confronting terrorism and pursuing lasting peace and security.”
Obama, who was to fly to Israel later in the day, said his “thoughts and prayers go out to all who were injured, and to their families”.
The attack occurred while Israeli President Shimon Peres hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his official residence less than a kilometre (half-mile) away.
Israeli officials said the driver was a Palestinian from a village in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel considers part of Jerusalem. Its residents have freedom of movement throughout the city and Israel. “The bulldozer driver left a construction site, and hit two cars,” a police spokesman said. “A civilian who saw what was happening, shot him. The bulldozer continued on its way. A border police patrol … continued to shoot and the terrorist was killed.”
The bulldozer also hit a bus. Emergency services said at least 16 people were wounded, one seriously. After the attack, police set up a cordon around the yellow bulldozer and the slumped body of the driver inside. “This was another attempt to murder innocent people in a senseless act of terrorism,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The attack was praised by Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip as “a natural reaction to the crimes of the (Israeli) occupation”.
Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost the territory to Hamas in fighting a year ago, told reporters he “condemned and rejected” the attack and said such incidents “hurt our reputation and peace in general”.
Obama, scheduled to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday, was due to stay in Jerusalem at the King David Hotel, less than 200 metres (yards) from the scene of the attack. Police said they had no immediate evidence to suggest it was linked to the visit.
The area is one of the most heavily guarded in a city hit by multiple suicide bombings during a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.
A bulldozer attack in Jerusalem on July 2 killed three Israelis. Its Palestinian driver, a resident of Arab East Jerusalem, was shot dead by an off-duty soldier and police.
Tuesday’s attack coincided with the first visit by a Palestinian president to Israel’s official presidential residence. “I am full of confidence the problems will be resolved,” Peres said after a red-carpet greeting for Abbas, who is engaged in statehood negotiations with Olmert that have shown little sign of progress. “I feel both sides believe there is no alternative to peace,” Peres said.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said before the meeting that Abbas would seek Peres’s help to halt “settlement expansion that is undermining peace talks” that began at a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland last November.
In his remarks at the presidential residence known as Beit Hanasi, Abbas said: “Despite the passage of time, despite difficulties and obstacles, there is an end to this long conflict.”
Peres said he hoped to reassure Abbas that Israel remained committed to the U.S.-brokered negotiations despite a political crisis revolving around corruption allegations against Olmert that could lead to an early election.
The United States hopes for a Palestinian statehood deal before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.