U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to end to their weeklong conflict, as a blast hit a bus in Tel Aviv and air strikes on Gaza continued.
A bomb exploded on the bus around midday today near military headquarters in the Israeli commercial hub, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Television footage showed broken windows and damage to the interior while the chassis was largely intact. Roadblocks were set up in the city after the blast, and 21 people were hospitalized, three of them with serious injuries, Rosenfeld said by phone.
The Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of several militant Palestinian groups not under the direct authority of Hamas, claimed responsibility, Syrian state television reported. Hamas, which rules Gaza, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union. In Gaza, 12 Palestinians were killed today, bringing the total to at least 147. Five Israelis have died.
Clinton, who condemned the bus bombing in an e-mailed statement, had two meetings with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and travelled to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. She is now in Cairo, where President Mohamed Mursi has been spearheading the search for a truce. A plan to announce an agreement late yesterday broke down.
Truce ‘Less Likely’
The bus blast “makes it much less likely now we’re going to see an immediate Gaza cease-fire,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. “However, since at this stage it doesn’t seem to have caused massive damage, it won’t mean the end of diplomatic efforts.”
Clinton, speaking alongside Netanyahu, said it is “essential to de-escalate the situation” and reach a “durable outcome that promotes regional stability.”
Palestinians fired more than 100 rockets so far today into Israel, the army said. More than 1,400 missiles, rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza in the past week. Israel has carried out at least 150 air strikes since midnight and more than 1,500 since the Nov. 14 killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari.
Overnight bombing targeted “dozens” of what the Israeli army described as “terrorist infrastructure sites,” including weapon depots, smuggling tunnels and rocket-launching bases.
It said one target was a Hamas operations center on the seventh floor of a high-rise building in Gaza City, and that the action was meant partly as a warning to media organizations that have offices there, among them Agence France-Presse.
Netanyahu told Clinton he would “prefer” a diplomatic solution that stops Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israel. “But if not, I’m sure you’ll understand Israel will have to take whatever action is necessary to defend its people,” he said.
In Ramallah, demonstrators outside the Palestinian Authority headquarters protested against U.S. support for Israel before Clinton’s arrival there.
Israel’s shekel declined after the bus bomb, dropping 0.3 percent against the dollar. The benchmark stock index recovered initial losses after the attack and was little changed from yesterday’s close at 3:30 p.m. local time. Oil, which dropped the most in almost two weeks yesterday on expectations of a cease-fire, rebounded today. Crude for January delivery rose 1.3 percent to $87.84 a barrel.
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio today that while the current operation’s goal is deterring attacks, “at some stage Israel will have to take decisive action, and for that you need a ground takeover of Gaza.”
Israel says any truce must guarantee the end of rocket attacks, while Hamas is demanding an end to the blockade of Gaza and the permanent opening of its border with Egypt.
Israel has massed armor on its border east of Gaza and is calling up 75,000 reservists for a possible ground operation. An incursion would be the first since December 2008, when fighting left more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
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