JERUSALEM – The yellow construction vehicle rumbled down Jerusalem’s central thoroughfare, steamrolling everything in its path, plucking cars off the street, swinging them into the air and crushing them to the ground with people trapped inside.
“I was shocked, I saw a guy going crazy, I saw him pick it up like a toy,” said Yosef Spielman, who witnessed the attack. “All the people were running. They had no chance.”
Israeli police say a Palestinian bulldozer driver went on a rampage in Jerusalem, killing at least two people and flipping a bus.
A Palestinian laborer driving a huge front loader went on a deadly rampage in downtown Jerusalem on Wednesday, killing three people, wounding more than 45 and sending hundreds of panicked residents running for cover before security forces shot the attacker dead.
The unusual weapon – a yellow Caterpillar front loader transformed into a deadly assault vehicle – threatened both Israelis’ sense of security and Palestinians’ fragile status in the city.
Three Palestinian militant groups claimed responsibility for the onslaught, the first major attack in Jerusalem in four months.
However, Israeli police said the assailant, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Arab east Jerusalem, apparently acted alone. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the man was working on a railway project in Jerusalem.
The attack was a departure from militants’ previous methods, which have consisted mostly of suicide bombings and shooting sprees.
“To our regret the attackers do not cease coming up with new ways to strike at the heart of the Jewish people here in Jerusalem,” said Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, whose daughter was on a bus rammed by the attacker. She was not injured.
Israel called the attack a “senseless act” and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to negotiate a peace accord with Israel, condemned it. In Washington, the White House said President Bush called the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to express his sorrow over the incident.
The rampage turned a bustling commercial district into a scene of panic and confusion. Maria Stashevsky, a 19-year-old passenger on one of the rammed buses, said she didn’t know what was going on until the collision.
“I saw people running our way and then the vehicle appeared and it hit us, turning us over,” she said from her hospital bed where she was being treated for injuries to her head, legs and back. “People started landing on me and we had to break through the windows to escape. There was blood everywhere. It’s a miracle I got out of there.”
Three people were killed and 45 were injured, including two babies.
The mother of one of the babies hurled the child out of the car window to save her as the attacker bore down on their vehicle, and the mother was also injured. The mother of the other baby, Batsheva Unterman, 33, was killed in the assault. Social workers appeared on TV frantically trying to locate the child’s father.
A second dead woman was identified as Elizabeth Goren-Friedman, 54, a dual Austrian-Israeli citizen who had lived in Israel for several years, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said. The third victim was a man.
The attacker began his rampage on a street near Jerusalem’s central bus station, and then turned onto Jaffa Road – the city’s main downtown thoroughfare – crushing everything in his path. At one point, he rammed into the back of a crowded bus, flipping it on its side.
The attacker was stopped only after a police officer climbed into the Caterpillar’s cabin and wrestled with the driver. An off-duty soldier in a blue T-shirt and a special forces officer then jumped on the vehicle and shot the driver dead.
“I ran up the stairs (of the vehicle) and when he was still driving like crazy and trying to harm civilians, I fired at him twice more and, that’s it, he was neutralized,” said Eli Mizrahi, the anti-terror unit officer.
Injured people sat dazed on the ground amid piles of broken glass, blood stains and motionless bodies covered in plastic. A rescue worker stroked the hair of an elderly pedestrian, and a loved one raised the bleeding leg of a woman outside the overturned bus. Paramedics evacuated screaming babies into ambulances.
The attack took place in front of a building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media outlets. BBC footage captured the rampage and the shootout as onlookers screamed in horror.
Cassia Pereira, office manager for AP’s Jerusalem bureau, watched the attack outside her window.
“I saw him but it was too late and there was nothing to do,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I was in panic. I couldn’t say a word.”
Friends identified the attacker as Hussam Dwayat, a devout Muslim and father of two who they said had no known ties to militant groups. “Everybody is in shock,” said Salayan Weyed, a friend of the man’s wife.
Dwayat’s aunt stood on the family balcony ululating and screaming “he is a martyr.” Other relatives sat quietly nearby, and several dozen people gathered in front of the home.
Dwayat had been fined $50,000 for building his house without a permit, and a demolition order was on file, said Hassib Nashashibi, head of a group that defends Palestinians against such orders. That might explain Dwayat’s motivation in the attack, and the circumstances might also influence Israel’s decision about whether to destroy the house as punishment.
Later Wednesday, five military vehicles gathered outside the family’s two-story home in east Jerusalem, where police interviewed relatives, took pictures and gathered evidence before leaving an hour later. Police said Dwayat had a criminal background, but gave no details.
In the wake of the attack, Israeli media were filled with demands from hard-line Israelis to take steps against Jerusalem’s Palestinians – expelling the families of attackers, destroying their houses and refusing to employ them.
About two-thirds of Jerusalem’s 700,000 residents are Jews, and the rest are Palestinians who came under Israeli control when Israel captured their part of the city in 1967.
Though Jews and Arabs have little social interaction, Palestinians perform much of the city’s blue-collar work and the sides frequently come into contact. In contrast to West Bank Palestinians, Arab residents of Jerusalem have full freedom to work and travel throughout Israel. Many Jerusalem Arabs work in the construction industry.
City Hall spokesman Gidi Schmerling said all east Jerusalem residents who work in construction for the city must pass a police screening. He said Dwayat worked for a private construction firm. The contractor who employed him could not be reached for comment.
The militant groups claiming responsibility included the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which is loosely affiliated with Abbas’ Fatah movement, as well as the Galilee Freedom Battalion, suspected of being affiliated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a fringe militant group.
Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and is currently maintaining a fragile cease-fire with Israel, said it did not carry out the attack but nevertheless praised it. “We consider it as a natural reaction to the daily aggression and crimes committed against our people,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said, “We condemn any attacks that target civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinians.”