An explosion hit a bus in central Tel Aviv on Wednesday, wounding at least 28 people. One of the casualties was in serious condition, one sustained light-to-moderate injuries, and the rest were lightly wounded.
Police opened an immediate manhunt for two suspected terrorists.
The explosion occurred at the corner of Shaul Hamelech and Henrietta Szold Streets just after noon. A suspect was arrested about half an hour after the explosion, but was quickly released from custody.
Passersby were ordered to keep their distance from the scene. Security alert was raised to level 4 in the area surrounding the Kirya, Israel’s national defense compound. The municipality ordered schools to keep pupils indoors for nearly two hours after the attack.
Police temporarily closed off the Azrieli Center nearby, but ruled out suspicion of an additional terror plot in the area.
“A bomb exploded on a bus in central Tel Aviv. This was a terrorist attack. Most of the injured suffered only mild injuries,” said Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Shin Bet security service earlier this week received intelligence information regarding dozens of “terror plots” currently being planned, Haaretz learned soon after the attack.
The central suspicion was that terrorists were going to try to assassinate a senior member of the government or military echelon, using either explosives or a high-trajectory weapon.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said the explosive appeared to have been placed under a seat on the bus. He urged Tel Aviv residents to go about their ordinary routines, but to remain aware of their surroundings.
“Stay aware, keep your eyes open. We are in a time of preparedness that is definitely not over,” he said. “The scenario of a terror attack in Tel Aviv, or anywhere else, was possible. We had no pointed information, but there were assessments.”
Police Commission Yohanan Danino said that an investigation into the bus bombing was being carried out in coordination with the Shin Bet.
“As far as we are concerned, this is a terror attack. All of the signs point to this being a terrorist bombing,” he said. “One of the things we’ve been preparing for since the beginning of the recent events is that we must be ready for more than rockets on the south, for the possibility of [terror] attacks.”
“It requires huge motivation to carry out attacks in these big cities, Tel Aviv and Rishon Letzion,” he added. “We’ve been preparing accordingly. I can’t remember a time of such massive preparation.”
“Talk of a cease-fire [with Hamas] just caused further [terror] attempts,” added Danino. “I urge us to continue looking at this time as very sensitive, not just with missile and secure spaces. Don’t forget that there are other threats.”
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that social workers were stationed at Ichilov Hospital and were also available for consultation at the hotline number 106.
Television showed pictures of a smoke-filled bus, with its windows broken. The bus was charred and blackened, its side windows blown out and its glass scattered on the asphalt. An Israeli driver who witnessed the explosion told Army Radio the bus was “completely charred inside.” Another witness said there were few passengers on the bus when it exploded.
The attack happened on the eighth day of an Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip which it launched with the stated aim of preventing rocket strikes from the Palestinian enclave.
A Palestinian source in the West Bank told Haaretz that the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade claimed responsibility for the Tel Aviv attack, but that it has been carried out by a delegation from the Gaza Strip.
Celebratory gunfire rang out in Gaza City when local radio stations reported news of the Tel Aviv explosion. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri praised the bombing, but came short of responsibility for the attack.
“Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres…in Gaza,” he told Reuters.
“Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression,” Abu Zuhri said.
Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam brigades, said on Twitter.”You opened the gates of hell on yourselves. Oh Zionists, you have to drag yourselves out of hell, go back home now, go back to Germany, Poland, Russia, America and anywhere else.”
The last time Israel’s commercial capital was hit by a serious bomb blast was in April 2006, when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 11 people at a sandwich stand near the city’s old central bus station. A bomb left at a bus stand in Jerusalem last year killed one person.
More than 1,000 Israelis were killed during the violent Palestinian uprising in the last decade in bombings and shooting attacks. More than 5,000 Palestinians were killed as well.