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Garage a graveyard for bombed-out buses
Stewart Bell
June 23, 2003

'When a new bus comes in, I cry,' mechanic says
KIRYAT ATA, Israel - On a broad plain of overgrown fields and industrial smokestacks, a gravel lot behind a maintenance garage has become the graveyard for the bombed buses of Israel's national transit company.

The skeletons of blown-up buses rest there like crushed toys, looking much as they did months ago when Palestinian terrorists chose them and their unlucky passengers as targets for obliteration.

Each time a bus is bombed, it is loaded on to a flatbed truck and brought to this out-of-the-way property in northern Israel's industrial heartland to be dismantled by company mechanics and laid to rest.

"When a new bus comes in, I cry," said Tsvika Lifschitz, 55, the stocky former Israeli soldier who runs the garage.

"Three weeks after this, the smell of the dead, you can feel it in your nose. It's very tough for a man."

Mr. Lifschitz has been busy lately. A month ago there were 10 buses here. Now there are three, and bus bombings on May 18 and June 11 mean two more are on the way. "This is our life in Israel," he said.

Buses are a favourite target of such Palestinian terrorist groups as Hamas. They offer a concentration of civilian victims in an enclosed space where the force of the explosives is magnified, and they have little security.

Suicide bombers are trained to strap an explosive charge to their body, surround it with a layer of metal shards, nails and ball-bearings, then board a crowded bus, perhaps disguised as a woman or an Orthodox Jew.

It happens so often, it is difficult to understand why ordinary Israelis still use public transit, but many have no other way to get to school or work.

The most recent strike came 12 days ago, when Hamas sent an 18-year-old student from Hebron to Jerusalem to retaliate for the attempted assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a radical Hamas leader.

Seventeen Israelis were killed. Last Thursday, a suicide bomber blew up a convenience store, killing the shopkeeper, but police believe he was intending to board a bus across the street.

Once the police are finished with the buses, they are trucked here to this bleak, blue-collar city near Haifa, where flares from a gas plant light up the sky above a grassy plain ringed by mountains.

At the bus graveyard, the vehicles are scoured by volunteers who remove every spot of flesh, blood and bone so it can be buried with the body, as is the Jewish custom.

The crews working for Mr. Lifschitz then slice the buses into pieces, which are placed in a blue dumpster and sold abroad as scrap metal.

Mr. Lifschitz, a veteran of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the war in Lebanon in the 1980s, has become a sort of undertaker for the bombed buses of Israel.

He knows the stories behind each of them.

"This driver was hit two times," he said, standing next to the chassis of one bus, lying on its side. "First five years ago in Jerusalem and again seven months ago."

He walked across the yard to the rusted shell of another bus, this one hit by a car bomb, and pointed to a dent in the left rear. "It hit here," he said. "Twenty people were killed on this bus."

Next to it was bus No. 97915, blown up by a suicide bomber last year. There was an outward bulge in the metal frame where the bomber was sitting when he pressed the trigger. The windows were gone, the seats shredded.

The exterior still had the red-and-white colours of Israel's public transit system, but inside, the apocalyptic force of the explosion had transformed the familiar layout of a bus into something unrecognizable.

There were also what look like bullet holes, made by the ball-bearings packed around the charge. One of those wounded was a Palestinian who worked at the garage.

"Now he is on pension. He is retired," Mr. Lifschitz said.

"This is a beautiful country. In this one garage, we have 120 people -- Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Arabs. When someone has a wedding, everybody comes."

But the radical Palestinian groups do not share that desire to live together in peace. They want to fight a holy war, he said, adding such groups as Hamas are afraid to fight fair.

While the Israeli forces target such known terrorist leaders as Rantisi, Palestinian groups deliberately try to kill civilians. If they want to have Israel, Mr. Lifschitz said, they should fight against the Israeli armed forces.

"Cowards. Why are you killing the children and the old people on the buses? If you want to fight, come and fight.

"I am a soldier."

But he said he knows they will not do it, so he does what he can to help keep buses out of graveyard. Aside from taking apart bombed buses, Mr. Lifschitz's garage also installs bulletproof glass in bus windows in case they get sprayed with bullets.

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