A Jewish settler absent without leave from the Israeli army opened fire Thursday on a public bus traveling to an Arab town in northern Israel, killing at least four people and wounding 10. In the immediate aftermath, passengers swarmed the gunman, killing him before he could leave the bus.
In a statement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the shooting "a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist who sought to attack innocent Israeli citizens." Israeli police officials suggested that the attack was an attempt to derail the government's planned evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank scheduled to begin later this month.
The gunman, identified as Eden Natan Zada, 19, had recently moved to a West Bank settlement known as a stronghold of religious extremists opposed to the evacuation plan, Israeli police officials said.
Witnesses said Zada, wearing the skullcap of a religiously observant Jew, boarded the Egged Bus No. 165 from Haifa clothed in an Israeli army uniform. Jewish and Arab residents of Israel's Lower Galilee regularly ride the route, which passes through the Jewish community of Kiryat Ata before ending in the Arab town of Shfaram.
Ibtihaj Salame, 57, got on the bus at Kiryat Ata, usually the last stop for its Jewish passengers. Salame, a Druze woman with three sons in the Israeli military, was returning home from a medical appointment in Haifa. She said she generally avoids buses for fear of suicide bombers but was forced to take one Thursday after missing her shared taxi.
In a telephone interview a few hours after the 5:30 p.m. shooting, she said she took a seat in front of a man dressed in an army uniform. Salame said that the bus driver asked the soldier to move to the front of the bus but that he refused. As she got off the bus at the second stop in Shfaram, a town of 34,000 people, she heard shots ring out.
"No one spoke to him on the bus other than the driver," Salame said. "No one thought or imagined that he was up to something. But maybe the driver did."
The victims were identified as the bus driver, Michel Bahoud, 55, an Arab Christian from the Lower Galilee region; a Christian woman; a Muslim woman; and a Muslim man. Police said all four were Israeli Arabs.
The event recalled the 1994 attack carried out by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from New York who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron. Goldstein, who was also dressed in an army uniform, was killed before he could leave the mosque. The shooting marked the beginning of a difficult period for the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians signed the previous year.
In his statement, Sharon called Thursday's attack "a terrorist event" and said it was "a deliberate attempt to harm the fabric of relations among all Israeli citizens. Terrorism by civilians against civilians is the most dangerous thing affecting the future of the state of Israel and its stability as a democracy."
The attack also was condemned by leaders of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The organization has staged large demonstrations against the evacuation plan, which Sharon says is needed to ensure Israel's security and the long-term viability of its Jewish majority.
"We think there is no connection between this and our movement," Shaul Goldstein, the council's deputy chairman, said of the shooting. "He's a terrorist, a lunatic and immoral. He has no connection to my values. He's a criminal and should be treated like one."
Israeli police officials said Zada, the son of secular Jewish parents, had recently moved to the West Bank settlement of Tapuah. Many of the community's roughly 600 residents are followers of the late Meir Kahane, who favored the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the land it occupied in the 1967 war. Many settlers believe the land was promised to the Jewish people by God.
Kahane's followers founded a yeshiva, or Jewish religious academy, in the settlement. The religious-political movement he inspired, known as Kach, is designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
Israeli military officials said Zada, originally from the Israeli town of Rishon Letzion, had been absent from his unit in southern Israel since June 14 in apparent protest against the Gaza evacuation. He joined the army in January and was still undergoing basic training.
In a letter he left at his base, Zada wrote that he "could not be part of an organization that expels Jews," according to a copy published Thursday evening on the Israeli news Web site Ynet.
Nakad Nakad, 40, witnessed the shooting from the balcony of his home in the center of Shfaram. He said he heard shots from inside the bus, then watched as rifle fire sprayed from the windows into the street around it.
"It is clear he intended to kill Arabs inside Shfaram, to have a massacre," said Nakad, a political leader of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a community movement. "That's why he waited for the bus to get inside the town."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.