16 hurt in bulldozer attack in J'lem

Worker hits five vehicles on King David Street before being shot dead, relative of jailed Hamas MP.

2nd bulldozer attack 224 (photo credit: ZAKA)
2nd bulldozer attack 224
(photo credit: ZAKA)
For the second time in three weeks, an Arab bulldozer driver from east Jerusalem rammed his construction vehicle into a city bus and several cars on a central thoroughfare in the capital on Tuesday, wounding 15 people before being shot dead by a Druse border police officer and a civilian passerby. The early afternoon attack on King David Street was seen as a failed copy of July 2's lethal bulldozer rampage on Jaffa Road in which Husam Taysir Dwayat killed three people and wounded dozens before he was killed. Facing a series of attacks by Palestinians apparently acting on their own, politicians and security officials demanded Tuesday that the government immediately move to deter future attacks by destroying the terrorists' homes, and some called to reexamine the way Arab construction workers from east Jerusalem are employed in the city. The latest assault began shortly before 2 p.m. when the tractor driver, Ghassan Abu Tir, a 22-year-old resident of the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Umm Tuba who was working on a construction project on a side street near the King David Hotel, pulled into King David Street and repeatedly crashed his vehicle into a No. 13 Egged bus, which managed to escape, and then rammed into five cars, one of which he overturned, before being shot dead by a motorist who happened by the scene. "I was driving on the main road when suddenly the tractor hit me in the rear on the right hand side," said bus driver Avi Levy. At first Levy thought it was a traffic accident, but then the attacker struck the bus over and over, causing pandemonium as passengers shouted: "God save us" and "escape, escape." "He made a U-turn and rammed the windows twice with the shovel. The third time he aimed for my head - he came up to my window and death was staring me in the eyes," Levy said. "Fortunately I was able to swerve to the right [onto a small side street], otherwise I would have gone to meet my maker," he said as he stood next to the badly damaged bus, whose left-side windows were completely blown out. An eyewitness said Abu Tir, who was wearing the large, white skullcap commonly worn by religious Muslims, repeatedly slammed his vehicle into the side of the bus, before speeding into several cars. "He didn't shout anything, [as] he was completely occupied with finding people to attack," said Moshe Shimshi, 30, who was driving his motorcycle on King David Street during the attack. "There was panic on the street as people were running away from the bus," said Yohanan Levine, 16, who distinctly recalled hearing a baby crying amid the chaos. The carnage quickly ended when a passing driver shot the assailant dead. The motorist, Yaki Asa-El, 53, from the Sussiya settlement in the Southern Hebron Hills, jumped out of his car and shot Abu Tir through the window of his bulldozer. A former company commander in the Armored Corps, Asa-El was talking on his speaker phone with his son when he came upon the attack. An agronomist and a grandfather of 11, Asa-El is a graduate of the Hebrew University's Agricultural Faculty in Rehovot who grows grapes and cherries, and is a teacher, said his younger brother Amotz Asa-El, a Jerusalem Post columnist and former executive editor. "He behaved the way the army trained him and his family have known him," the younger Asa-El said. In contrast to the previous bulldozer attack in the capital, a border police officer who rushed to the scene then quickly "verified" that the assailant was dead, shooting at him from the ground and then from close range. "I jumped on the tractor, broke the windows and shot him," said border police officer Amal Janam. Jerusalem police chief Cmdr. Aharon Franco said that the attacker only managed to drive 160 meters before he was killed. Despite three back-to-back attacks carried out by Jerusalem Arabs (the July 2 bulldozer attack and the shooting at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in March), Franco said at an on-scene police briefing that it was wrong to blame all the Arab residents of east Jerusalem, noting that the attackers were the "exceptions." About one-third, or 250,000, of the city's residents are Arabs. Israel Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen said that, as in the two previous cases, there had been no intelligence alerts of an impending attack, and that police had been properly deployed. The attacker, who has a criminal record for drugs and theft, is a relative of imprisoned Hamas leader Muhammad Abu Tir. Like on July 2, security officials said Tuesday's attacker apparently acted on his own, underscoring what police said could be a series of attacks by "lone attackers" in the short-term. Defense officials slammed the Justice Ministry for dragging its feet in granting permission to demolish the homes of two previous east Jerusalem terrorists - from the attacks at Mercaz Harav and the bulldozer rampage earlier this month. "It is very difficult to prevent terrorism in east Jerusalem when the residents there have blue identity cards and benefit from free access to Israel," one senior official said. "What is needed is to enhance our deterrence and this can be done by demolishing the homes." Other ideas that have been raised in the defense establishment but require legislation are the deportation of terrorists' families to the West Bank as well as the revocation of their Israeli residency. The initiatives, officials said, had yet to be formally presented to the government and would require the approval of the Justice Ministry as well as, most probably, the High Court of Justice. "The attack is a reminder of our complicated reality in Jerusalem, in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, in Lebanon with Hizbullah and even with Iran," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "This is a complicated reality but we are a strong nation." Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said the homes of the terrorists needed to be demolished, and that those who aided them should be barred from Jerusalem. "I believe that the homes of these terrorists need to be demolished and that those who helped them expelled from the city," Dichter said. "That is the best deterrent." He also proposed carrying out background checks on Arab employees who work with heavy construction equipment, but noted that Israel faced "not simple" legal obstacles to carrying out such moves. Israeli law bars most private employers from carrying out checks on employees' criminal records, police said. The houses of both previous east Jerusalem attackers remain standing as a result of legal red tape, despite the support of top government leaders for demolishing them, officials said. In the past, Israel routinely demolished the homes of terrorists, but stopped the practice, widely condemned by human rights groups and Palestinians as collective punishment, after an internal Israeli report questioned their efficacy. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who has repeatedly called for the demolition of the houses of attackers, said Tuesday that "renewed thinking" was needed in employing Arab residents of east Jerusalem, since "every work tool has become a potential for an attack." Following the latest attack, Jerusalem police said they would finish mapping out construction sites in the city, which they began doing after the previous bulldozer attack, and conduct security checks on the identities of Arab workers there, as well as ask their employers to keep an eye out for strange behavior. Police will also carry out routine patrols of the sites. The attack was condemned by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was meeting with President Shimon Peres at Beit Hanassi several blocks away. "I condemn the attack and as always I wholeheartedly oppose all acts of terror," Abbas said. The attack was praised by Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip as "a natural reaction to the crimes of the occupation." "Israel cannot accept terror attacks as part of the daily routine," Peres said, adding that the security services will take the necessary measures to ensure the security of Jerusalemites. In contrast to Palestinians from the West Bank, most Arab residents of the capital - having declined Israeli citizenship - carry ID cards that allow them freedom of movement throughout Israel and the West Bank, access that is sometimes exploited by terrorists. As one vehicle lay overturned on the street, and other damaged cars stood listlessly on the usually-bustling thoroughfare, police and ambulance sirens wailed and a police chopper hovered above central Jerusalem. By the end of the day, nearly all the lightly wounded victims of the attack - who included a mother and her nine-month-old baby, as well as French tourists and American Arab tourists from California - had been released from the city's four hospitals, while the most seriously wounded victim, a man whose leg was partially severed, remained in moderate condition, hospital officials said. Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.