Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Two Israelis were killed and at least nine others wounded when a roadside bomb was detonated beside an armored bus transporting Jewish children and teachers to school in the Gaza Strip on Monday morning.
The bomb, which the army described as extremely powerful, exploded as a convoy escorted by military jeeps passed by. It would have done considerably more damage had the bus not been so well protected, sources say.
Two adult civilians, a man and a woman, were killed. According to a hospital spokeswoman, three children ages seven, eight and eleven were critically wounded. Six others, including two children, three women - one who is pregnant - and the bus driver, were moderately to lightly wounded.
During the last seven weeks, Israeli residents of the Gaza Strip have been forced to travel in heavily guarded convoys for protection. Some 7,000 Israelis live in Jewish enclaves in the Gaza Strip among more than a million Palestinians. They must travel to and from their homes and jobs through narrow Israeli-guarded corridors, bordered by PA-controlled areas.
PA Chairman Yasser Arafat was said to have been enraged by the explosion, which, according to radio reports, was detonated from within PA-controlled area about 70 yards from the bus.
The PA distanced itself from the explosion in an official statement, saying that it had nothing to do with the bomb blast, which occurred within an area in which Israel maintains security.
Two previously unknown groups initially claimed responsibility for the bomb blast. The Al-Aksa uprising and Palestinian Hizballah both took credit for the explosion. However, according to unofficial sources, the group responsible is likely linked to known groups, who have continued to threaten terror attacks against Israeli targets.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak expressed his "deep shock" over the attack in a statement and said that it was an "especially grave and serious attack."
Barak called a meeting of his security cabinet for late morning to determine an Israeli response to the attack. According to a statement from the prime minister's office, Barak will hold consultations throughout the day and "will respond according to developments."
Barak, who has exercised what he has called a policy of "restraint" is under fire from all sides to respond more powerfully to the Palestinian violence, which has left Israelis throughout the country feeling that their security, particularly on the highways, is in danger.
Israeli Communications Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer hinted that Israel would launch painful reprisals against the PA for this attack.
"There is no such thing as 'there's nothing to be done about it,'" Ben-Eliezer said in a radio interview on Monday. "If this hurts us, it will hurt them [the Palestinians] sevenfold."
The attack comes just three days after Arafat called for a halt to shooting attacks on Israelis from PA controlled areas.
Israeli army sources reported a sharp decrease in shooting attacks over the weekend. However, in one incident one Israeli soldier was killed and another critically wounded when a captain in Arafat's Palestinian preventive security services opened fire on an Israeli outpost guarding the settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip.
The captain was killed in an exchange of fire. Israel refrained from mounting a retaliatory attack after the PA requested that Israel not strike back and said that it was launching an investigation into the incident.
The PA later denied reports that captain Baha Said, a member of Arafat's Fatah Hawks, had been promoted in rank posthumously. Up to 10,000 Palestinians touted Said as a martyr and hero at his funeral on Saturday.
Sporadic shooting and firebomb attacks continued on Israeli soldiers and civilians throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the weekend. The Israeli army discovered and dismantled a 44-pound bomb in the Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt on Sunday.
Two Palestinians, one aged 14, were killed in clashes with Israeli troops on Sunday.
In one instance, a firebomb set an Israeli jeep alight. The fire quickly spread to a nearby Palestinian home. Israeli soldiers, who came to help their comrades injured in the jeep, ran into the burning building and rescued 12 Palestinians, including children, from the blaze.