Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A suicide bomber blew apart a public bus in Haifa on Wednesday afternoon, leaving at least 15 people dead and more than 30 others wounded, some seriously.
The force of the blast threw bodies and body parts into the street and blew the entire roof off the bus, which then went up in flames. Passers-by were among the wounded, and the force of the explosion damaged nearby cars and uprooted palm trees.
This is the first suicide bombing since the beginning of January, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up on a Tel Aviv street, killing 23 Israelis and foreign nationals. Israeli officials said the lull between January and now may have provided a "false" sense of calm.
Earlier this week, in fact, security officials said Israel was facing 50 active warnings of planned or impending attacks.
Northern area police commander Ya'acov Borovsky described the terror attack as "very powerful." He said it occurred at a time of day when the buses are usually full of students going home from classes at the nearby University of Haifa.
There were no specific warnings about an attack, Borovsky said. "To my sorrow, it's a very hard terror attack."
Israeli television reported that the bomber, who apparently walked onto the bus, was wearing a belt with some 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives.
"There was a big explosion. It was scary. It's impossible to describe this," one witness said in a radio interview. "All the roof of the bus flew off. There was a terror attack inside the bus."
Israel blamed the Palestinian Authority and pledged to continue to fight terrorism, even though that struggle earned Israel a rare U.S. rebuke this week.
"[This is] another vicious attack by Palestinian terrorists," said David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's office.
"This attack underscores Israel's ongoing need for taking initiated action against terrorists and those who dispatch them. Israel will not let up in its war against terror," Baker said.
"Obviously, this is a horrific terror attack today," said Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Jonathan Peled. "[But] there has not been any calm...
No lack of effort by terrorists
"There is a very false sense of quiet in the last two months," Peled said -- not because the Palestinians did not try to carry out attacks but because of the pre-emptive and preventative actions of the Israeli security forces, he added.
During the past two months, there have been 57 interceptions of terror attacks, including would-be suicide bombers and others, he said. "Today is number 58. Unfortunately, we didn't catch this one."
United Nations envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Terje Larson, who is in the region, condemned the attack as a "horrible act of terrorism."
"There is only one way to characterize this," Larson said in a radio interview. "This is a cynical act of pre-meditated murder and nothing else. It serves no political purpose."
Larson also said that the PA was not doing enough to prevent or dissuade suicide bombers.
"As long as there are horrible acts like this enough is not done. Its only when this does not occur enough is done," he said.
The PA condemned the attack and rejected the accusation that it was responsible in any way.
"We condemn all attacks against civilians, including today's attack in Haifa," PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a statement.
"The attack will only serve to distract attention from the more than 150 Palestinian civilians killed by Israel over the last two months," he said.
There have been no claims of responsibility yet but Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi praised the attack and vowed to keep up resistance against Israel.
The attack follows clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinian militants over the last two weeks - clashes that have also killed some Palestinian civilians, prompting a rare rebuke from the U.S. government this week. Israel says Palestinian militants deliberately operate in crowded civilian areas.
The White House said on Tuesday that Israel has a right to defend itself but the U.S. was concerned about actions "that bring harm to innocents, including innocent Palestinians."
On Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was more critical, saying the U.S. had urged Israel to take precautions to prevent the death or injury of innocent civilians and was "deeply concerned about the increasing Israeli use over the past few months of demolitions and the civilian deaths that have resulted from this practice."
Last summer, Israel started demolishing the homes of suspected terrorists and their families as a deterrent measure.
Israel stepped up its military operations against the terrorist infrastructure and militants two weeks ago after Hamas claimed responsibility for blowing up a tank, killing four soldiers in the Gaza Strip.
On Monday, Israel arrested one of the co-founders of Hamas, Sheikh Muhammed Taha, 65, signaling that Israel was now going after political as well as military leaders.
Israel demolished Taha's house. In the explosion, Palestinians said a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy was killed when her house collapsed on her from the force of the blast. A 14- and 16-year-old were also killed as well as five gunmen.
"Basically what Richard Boucher said the other day was that the American administration understands the need for actions against terror infrastructure but is concerned for the civilians," Peled said. "Obviously, we share the same concern."
"[Israeli military action] is directed to prevent exactly what happened today." He added.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Dr. Ra'anan Gissin said that if Israel had not undertaken the current military campaign there would have been many more suicide and homicide bombings.
Israel television quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying that Israel would respond to the attack, but would do so in a way so as not to damage the U.S. plans in Iraq.