A suicide bombing in Jerusalem and an Israeli helicopter raid in Gaza killed at least 24 people, in an explosion of tit-for-tat violence a day after an assassination attempt on a senior Palestinian militant.
Seventeen people were killed and scores wounded when a suicide bomb ripped through a bus on a busy street in central-west Jerusalem, police reported Wednesday.
About an hour later, seven Palestinians were killed when Israeli helicopters fired missiles on a car in Gaza City, Palestinian medical and security sources told AFP.
The bloodshed, sparked by the helicopter attack Tuesday on Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi, political leader of the radical group Hamas, drove a new nail into hopes for implementation of a US-sponsored "roadmap" for peace.
US President George W. Bush, who last week brought both sides together for a summit to promote the peace process, condemned the suicide bombing in Jerusalem "in the strongest possible terms," the White House said.
Bush earlier had delivered a milder, but rare rebuke, to Israel, saying he was "troubled" by the helicopter gunship attacks on Rantissi that left two people dead and two dozen wounded and another raid in Gaza which killed another three people.
The Jerusalem attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who apparently stepped on a bus when it was stopped at a major intersection, near the entrance of a shopping mall, Israeli radio said.
"The bus was torn to shreds. There was a massive blast, it's a horrific scene," one witness was quoted as saying by public radio.
The street, west Jerusalem's main thoroughfare, has been by hit several Palestinian suicide attacks since the start of the intifada, or uprising, against Israeli in September 2000.
A Hamas official, speaking to AFP, stopped short of an outright claim of responsibility for the latest bombing but said the attack showed Palestinian groups could strike "when and where" they wanted.
Rantissi, who suffered only light wounds in the helicopter missile attack on his life, had vowed from his hospital bed "not to leave one Jew in Palestine" as the group dropped all talk of a ceasefire.
"Israel is targeting Palestinian civilians, so Israeli civilians should be targeted. From now on all Israeli people are targets," said the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, on Tuesday.
The Israeli helicopter strike, carried out shortly after the Jerusalem bombing, occurred in the Shajayah neighborhood in Gaza City, the Palestinian sources said.
According to witnesses, the target was Massud Titi, a senior member of the hardline Islamic Hamas movement's armed wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades.
The latest attacks came a week to the day after Israel and the Palestinians affirmed their commitment to Bush's peace roadmap to end the 32 months of bloodshed at the summit with Bush in Aqaba, Jordan.
Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas vowed at the summit to end the armed uprising against Israeli occupation, but was rebuffed by radical militant groups, including Hamas.
Beyond Bush's rare rebuke, the attack on Rantissi triggered a barrage of criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government from the Arab world as well as from the Israeli press and opposition groups.
But Israel officials were unapologetic, vowing to root out Palestinian militants while bracing for reprisals.
Military radio said Israeli security services had intelligence on plans for 53 anti-Israeli attacks, half of them from Hamas.
© 2003 AFP