LATRUN JUNCTION, Israel – Elite police commandos chased down a group of Palestinians racing toward central Israel in a van packed with explosives Tuesday, foiling a potentially devastating bombing just days before national elections.
The arrests capped a 15-minute high-speed chase by heavily armed police commandos on motorcycles. The hunt brought Israel's main highway to a standstill for more than an hour, and motorists close to the takedown ran away screaming after police announced they found live explosives.
Reflecting the jitters, Israel has banned Palestinians from entering the country until after the March 28 election and greatly restricted movement through the Gaza Strip's main cargo crossing. With the closure causing shortages of milk, bread and other essentials in Gaza, Israel allowed the crossing to reopen temporarily Tuesday.
A high alert was declared in the Jerusalem area at about 11:30 a.m. after the domestic Shin Bet security service received a tip that Palestinians in a blue van had infiltrated from the West Bank and were planning to carry out an attack in an Israeli city, police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
Police erected roadblocks, and the van eventually was spotted on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Police vehicles gave chase and caught up with the van about 15 minutes later. Police commandos wielding automatic weapons participated in the chase, backed by a helicopter.
"We were traveling along the highway ... and suddenly we saw a helicopter swoop down and anti-terror forces speed by," witness Yonatan Danino told Israel Radio. "Suddenly we saw a car with security forces surrounding it. They even came out of the bushes."
Police made the 10 passengers strip to their underwear and ordered them to lie face down in a field. Bomb experts searched the car and found a bag containing 15 pounds of explosives, Rosenfeld said. That is a typical amount of explosives used by a suicide bomber.
Police removed the bomb from the car, setting off a panic among nearby motorists.
"People started to run away from the cars," Danino said. "Police were shouting into megaphones, 'Live bomb! Live bomb!' and people were running in every direction."
Police said one of the suspects was from the militant Islamic Jihad group, which has carried out suicide bombings in the past year and has not observed an informal truce. The suspect is from the West Bank village of Yamoun, scene of a botched army raid over the weekend.
Rosenfeld said police had very specific information about the car being chased, but he would not say what the attackers' target was.
A successful attack could have had deep repercussions for the election. The centrist Kadima Party, which holds a wide lead in opinion polls, has been accused by its hawkish rivals of being too soft on the Palestinians.
Past elections have been affected by outbreaks in violence, and officials have feared militants might try to disrupt the vote.
"In the past few days we know about an increase in alerts and today one attack was thwarted. I want to congratulate the defense forces on the successful operation and the fact that a terror attack was prevented," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.
Security forces have been on high alert ahead of the election, especially since Israeli forces assaulted a West Bank jail last week and arrested six wanted Palestinians.
Amid concerns of violence, Israel reopened the Karni crossing, the main gateway for Gaza's imports and exports, for a second straight day in an attempt to alleviate a food shortage in the area.
The crossing was opened only for about 30 minutes Monday because of Israeli security concerns. Militants have attacked Karni in the past.
Israel has closed the Karni crossing for most of the past 2 1/2 months, warning of more attacks.
The Palestinians hoped to bring 100 trucks of food and medicine into Gaza on Tuesday, said the director of the Palestinian border authority, Salim Abu Safiah.
"I hope that the Israelis will stick to their promises and will open Karni totally in the coming days," Abu Safiah said. "Gaza is suffering with the shortage of foodstuffs."
Palestinians have accused Israel of imposing the closure as a punishment following the Islamic militant group Hamas' victory in January legislative elections.
After previously denying such allegations, an Israeli official confirmed Tuesday that the Karni closure was intended partly to send a message to Hamas, though he also said the security threats were real.
A second official said that while Hamas continues to respect a cease-fire, the group still is building up its arsenal and improving its logistics. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The United States, concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, has been pressing the sides to work out an agreement on Karni's opening.
U.N. officials have complained in recent days that the closures were causing shortages of key food items in Gaza and preventing them from delivering aid to the impoverished coastal strip.
John Ging, field director for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, said about 730,000 people in Gaza, roughly half the population, depend on food distribution. He said distribution, which has been frozen since Sunday, remained on hold.