SHFARAM,AP – A 19-year-old Israeli soldier opened fire inside a bus Thursday, killing four Israeli Arabs in the deadliest attack on Arabs in Israel by a Jewish extremist since 1990. An angry crowd then killed the gunman.
Thirteen people, including bus passengers and two policemen, were wounded in the shooting, which appeared linked to tensions over the upcoming Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
After the attack, the bruised and bloodied body of the gunman lay on the floor of the bus surrounded by stones — raising the possibility he had been stoned to death.
The military identified the dead soldier as Pvt. Eden Natan-Zada, a resident of the Jewish settlement of Tapuah in the West Bank. Natan-Zada”s father, Yitzhak, told The Associated Press his son ran away from his army unit several weeks ago after being told he would have to participate in the Gaza pullout.
Israel Radio said the gunman was bludgeoned to death by the crowd. After the attack, the gunman”s body lay on the floor of the bus, and police had covered his head with a black plastic bag. His shirtless upper torso was heavily bruised.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denounced the shooting as "a despicable act by a bloodthirsty terrorist." Settler leaders also condemned the attack.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to prevent Jewish settlers from carrying weapons "because they (the settlers) are dangerous to the security and peace." Many settlers carry arms, which they say they need to protect themselves.
Security officials have been warning for months that Jewish militants, desperate to sabotage Israel”s pullout, might attack Arabs to distract Israeli forces. The police commissioner, Moshe Karadi, warned the shooting could trigger more violence.
Police in Jerusalem, fearing "provocation" and rioting by Muslims who pray Friday at a Jerusalem shrine, will increase the presence of officers in the narrow alleys and streets of the Old City, police spokesman Shmulik Ben-Ruby said.
The attack took place on the No. 165, which shuttles between the Arab town of Shfaram in northern Israel and nearby communities. At around 6 p.m., the bearded gunman, who wore an Israeli army uniform, boarded the bus and opened fire. Police said the attacker wore a skullcap, identifying him as an Orthodox Jew.
Four people were killed, including the driver. Police said the four apparently were all residents of Shfaram.
The windows of the bus were shattered. Blood covered the floor and seats of the bus, and stones lay on the floor. A policeman with a bullhorn, standing near the body, addressed a crowd of thousands at the scene.
Several hours later, police slowly drove the bus away as hundreds of Shfaram residents ran alongside the vehicle. Investigators kept collecting evidence inside the bus as it was driven out of town.
Yitzhak Natan-Zada, 49, said he had asked the army to find his son, who fled from his unit after refusing to take part in the Gaza pullout. The elder Natan-Zada said he was worried his son”s weapons would fall into the hands of fanatics in Tapuah.
"I wasn”t afraid that he would do something. I was afraid of the others," Natan-Zada said by telephone. "I spoke to him two days ago and he was a happy and good-hearted boy and he told me he would find the time to return the weapon."
Tapuah is one of the most extreme Jewish settlements, dominated by followers of U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and the West Bank. Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990.
Israel TV said Natan-Zada was a deserter from his army unit who grew up in the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion and moved to the settlement recently.
There have been several incidents of Jewish extremists attacking Arabs over the years, but rarely inside Israel. In 1990, during the first Palestinian uprising, an Israeli opened fire at a bus stop where Palestinians gathered for job placements, killing seven.
In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Jewish settler entered a holy site in the West Bank city of Hebron and opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 — the bloodiest attack by a Jewish extremist against Palestinians.
Israeli Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel”s population of 6.9 million. They remained in their homes during the 1948-49 war that followed creation of the state of Israel, while hundreds of thousands of others fled or were driven out.
Though Israeli Arabs are full citizens, they have suffered from discrimination by Jewish-dominated governments. Many of their towns and villages lack basic infrastructure, and Arab localities are usually at the top of Israel”s unemployment lists.
Anger spilled over in October 2000, when thousands of Arabs rioted in support of the Palestinian uprising, which erupted the month before. Israeli police shot and killed 13 Arabs, further infuriating and alienating many Arab citizens.
In southern Israel, meanwhile, opponents of the pullout ended their second mass protest Thursday, after police blocked their plan to march to Gaza to reinforce the settlements. A few hundred protesters remained behind in the town of Ofakim, including settlers” council head Bentsi Lieberman, who denounced the shooting.
"Murder is murder is murder, and there can be no other response but to denounce it completely and express revulsion," he said.
Karadi said forces had been diverted to deal with the demonstrators, leaving the north of Israel short-handed. "We have sent forces from the center and those from the south who were supposed to be going home have now been diverted to the north," he said.