In an attack that could foreshadow even greater violence, a bomb exploded aboard a bus in central Tel Aviv today. Reports are still coming in, but at least 21 Israelis have been confirmed wounded in the bombing. The attack threatens to undermine the fragile negotiations underway in Cairo between Israel and Hamas to negotiate a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.
In a surprise, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah Party, has reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack. Journalists in Gaza reported that mosque loudspeakers hailed the attack as a "victory from God," while others reported hearing celebratory gunfire in the attack's aftermath. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised the attack, describing it as a "natural result of Israel's aggression on the people of Gaza."
Hopes had been high that a ceasefire was imminent -- Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi even said flatly that violence would come to an end yesterday. The attack could undo that optimism, and pave the way for a far more bloody conflict.
However, the fact that there were no fatalities in the attack has led some to hope that it will not completely scuttle the ongoing negotiations in Cairo. "Look, nobody was killed," said Yossi Alpher, the former director of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "If [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is looking for an excuse for a ground invasion, which I don't think he is, that could be an excuse for a ground invasion - but otherwise, I would like to believe that it won't tilt the balance in that way."
The attack was the first bus bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006, breaking the calm that the city had enjoyed in recent years. Early reports suggest that a man threw the bomb on the bus and then ran away; police are believed to have apprehended a man involved in the attack.
Meanwhile, negotiations continue apace in Cairo. Details of their progress are so far fairly sketchy - which actually may be a good sign, as diplomats tend to leak information to journalists when talks are stalled. While the Israelis will no doubt demand that that Hamas put an end to rocket attacks from Gaza as a result of a ceasefire, Hamas is likely to require that Israel also ease its economic blockade of the Strip.
That's a demand that Alpher, at least, thinks Netanyahu might not reject out of hand. While left-wing Israeli governments would be wary of de-legitimizing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which rules the West Bank and has been the Palestinians' official interlocutor in peace talks, Bibi's right-wing coalition might not be so concerned.
"[T]he Netanyahu government is actually probably more likely to do this, because whatever serious concessions we make with Hamas...is going to hurt the PLO," he said. "And since Netanyahu is not interested in negotiations with the PLO, he may be interested in weakening it. So paradoxically, perversely if you like, I think there is a chance we'll reach some sort of agreement."
It is still unclear whether the Tel Aviv bus bombing will be the final straw that triggers an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. But in the absence of a ceasefire agreement, such attacks will continue to pile up - heightening the risk that one of them will do significant casualties. And that may force Netanyahu's hand, even if he did not want a ground invasion in the first place.
"Casualties will be heavy, and Israel has become casualty-conscious with regards to the IDF in a way that never existed before," said Alpher. "There will be the inevitable so-called ‘atrocities,' or accidental killings board. The international community - at least the Western world, which ahs been relatively tolerant thus far - will begin to condemn us. All of this might be a fair price to pay if there were a clear, strategic goal behind the operation. But if there isn't...then the government is going to have a problem with the public."
Ziv Oren/Getty Images