July 3, 2008

3 Israelis Are Killed in Jerusalem Rampage Palestinian Injures More Than 40 People

By Isabel Kershner

A Palestinian driving a huge piece of construction equipment went on a deadly rampage along a central thoroughfare here Wednesday, crushing several cars and ramming into two buses before an off-duty soldier and a police officer clambered up to the cabin and shot him.

At least 3 people were killed in the path of the lurching front- end loader and more than 40 were wounded, Israeli officials said.

The police were treating the incident as a terrorist attack and said the driver, aged about 30, was a resident of Sur Baher, an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem that was conquered, then annexed, by Israel as a result of the 1967 war.

"There is no doubt at all that this was a terrorist attack," Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said at the scene.

Rosenfeld added that the authorities were investigating whether the driver, identified by acquaintances as Hussam Dweikat, had acted alone or on some organization's orders.

The victims were not immediately identified.

The news that the driver was a resident of Jerusalem, with free access to all parts of the city, will probably raise tensions here.

Four months ago another East Jerusalem Palestinian, Ala Abu Dhaim, gunned down eight students at a Jewish seminary in West Jerusalem, triggering calls for harsh action, like the demolition of his family home.

Police officials said that the driver in the incident Wednesday had a criminal record, but that there had been no intelligence information to suggest that he would carry out an attack.

Three Palestinian groups claimed responsibility, including Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group affiliated with the mainstream Fatah movement led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. But it was not clear whether any of the claims were credible.

The Israeli chief of police, Dudi Cohen, said the attacker appeared to have been acting spontaneously and alone.

Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza and that recently agreed to a cease-fire with Israel there, said it did not carry out the attack but praised it, The Associated Press reported.

Witnesses said they saw the Caterpillar loader set off around midday from a building site at one of the busiest intersections in the predominantly Jewish western half of the city, between the central bus station and the Mahane Yehuda market.

The vehicle turned into Jaffa Road, which runs through the city's central commercial area, immediately slicing through the driver's cabin of a small white van and flipping a silver Chevrolet onto its side.

Continuing along Jaffa Road, the driver used the machine's massive serrated scoop to overturn a bus from the Egged public transport company and leave a swath of wreckage about 300 meters long, mowing into several other cars and colliding with a second bus.

The police said they thought the driver might have intended to plow the loader into the crowded market before he was shot. "It could have been a lot worse," said Rosenfeld, the police spokesman.

Police officials contended that it was necessary to kill the driver to stop him. An initial investigation indicated that at least four security personnel had tried to overpower the driver, without success. The off-duty soldier shot him but failed to kill him. An officer from a special anti-terror police unit who sped to the scene on a motorcycle ended the episode.

The officer, Eli Mizrahi, told reporters that he had climbed up to the driver's cabin "when he was still driving like crazy and trying to harm civilians," and that he fired at him twice, killing him.

Much of the drama took place below the windows of an office block housing several foreign television networks. The loader was finally brought to a halt outside the Israel Broadcast Authority building, a car completely flattened beneath it.

In the first moments, witnesses said, they thought the machine was involved in a road accident but that it was soon apparent that the driver was on the attack, sowing panic.

"People started running for cover into stores and buildings," said Yuri Gudkovich, a security guard at an apartment block on Jaffa Road.

A crowd of passersby also began to chase the loader, desperate for a way to stop it.

"We started to run after it, shouting to find someone with a gun," said Moshe Oren, who works for a transport company along the road.

Oren said he looked into the face of the driver and saw "an expression of madness."

"It's hard to define," Oren continued, "but he also seemed cool- headed. He looked crazy and calculated at the same time."

Diapers, a toddler's pink jacket and a bottle of fruit juice were scattered on the bottom of the overturned bus. There was blood on the hood of a car whose roof had been ripped off.

The attack angered some Jewish residents of Jerusalem. The neighborhood where the perpetrator came from "has to be wiped out," said Sara Nagani, 48, who was watching the emergency services work. Nagani said she had come to Jerusalem with her family from India at the age of 3.

"I'll live and die here," she said, "but not like this."

Conversely, human rights activists have lobbied Caterpillar to stop selling its heavy machines to the Israeli military because they have been used to demolish Palestinian homes, uproot orchards and construct Jewish settlements in occupied land.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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