Palestinian suicide bomber kills nine in Tel Aviv, setting up confrontation with Israel |

Palestinian suicide bomber kills nine in Tel Aviv, setting up confrontation with Israel

Laurie Copans

TEL AVIV, Israel – A suicide bombing at a crowded restaurant during Passover killed nine people and drew a divided response from the Palestinian Authority – a sharp departure from previous governments’ immediate condemnations of such attacks.Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian legislature 2 1/2 weeks ago following its election victory, defended Monday’s attack – claimed by a separate Islamic militant group – as a legitimate response to Israeli “aggression.””We think that this operation … is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people,” said Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry.But the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah party, condemned the bombing and said he had ordered Palestinian security forces to prevent future attacks.”These kinds of attacks harm the Palestinian interest, and we as an authority and government must move to stop it,” Abbas said. “We will not stop pursuing anyone who carries out such attacks.”Abbas is currently in a power struggle with Hamas, and it remains unclear who is ultimately in charge of the Palestinians’ security forces.Israel said it held Hamas responsible for the attack in Tel Aviv even though a separate group, Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility. Islamic Jihad has close ties to Israel’s archenemy, Iran.Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in recent years, has largely observed a 16-month truce with Israel. But Monday’s bloodshed and the group’s hard-line stance could set the stage for harsh Israeli reprisals and endanger Hamas’ efforts to secure desperately needed international aid and acceptance.”Hamas’ constant preaching for the destruction of Israel serves as a catalyst for these attacks,” said David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman.The bomb attack took place just two hours before Israel’s newly elected parliament was sworn into office, and Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert said Israel would react with appropriate means.In an initial response, Israeli aircraft attacked an empty metal workshop in Gaza City early Tuesday, causing no injuries. The army said the workshop was used by the Popular Resistance Committee’s militant group to manufacture homemade rockets to launch at Israel.The European Union condemned the suicide bombing unequivocally, and Russia called on the Palestinian Authority to stop future attacks. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Palestinian government “to take a clear public stand” against such acts. And the United States warned of grave consequences for the Hamas-led government.”Defense or sponsorship of terrorist acts by officials of the Palestinian Cabinet will have the gravest effects on relations between the Palestinian Authority and all states seeking peace in the Middle East,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.The bombing was the first inside Israel since the Hamas Cabinet took office 2 1/2 weeks ago. Militants from Islamic Jihad celebrated by handing out pastries on the streets of Gaza.The attack came amid a sharp increase in fighting between Israel and the Palestinians across the Gaza border. Militants have fired homemade rockets at Israel, and Israel has responded with artillery. A 17-year-old Palestinian in northern Gaza was killed Monday in the shelling, Palestinian officials said.The suicide bombing took place about 1:40 p.m. when the attacker, carrying a bag stuffed with 10 pounds of explosives, approached “The Mayor’s Falafel” near Tel Aviv’s central bus station. The restaurant, which had been the target of a January bombing, was packed with Israelis on vacation during the weeklong Passover holiday.A guard outside was checking the bomber’s bag when the device exploded, police and witnesses said.”Suddenly there was a boom. The whole restaurant flew in the air,” said Azi Otmazgo, 35, who was wounded on his hands, foot and head.The bomb, laced with nails and other projectiles, shattered car windshields, smashed windows of nearby buildings and blew away the restaurant’s sign. Blood splattered the ground. Police said the guard’s body was torn in half.The explosion killed a woman standing near her husband and children, who were slightly wounded, said Israel Yaakov, another witness.”The father was traumatized, he went into shock. He ran to the children to gather them up, and the children were screaming, ‘Mom! Mom!’ and she wasn’t answering, she was dead already,” he said.The wounded were treated on sidewalks. One man was lying on his side, his shirt pushed up and his back covered by bandages. A bleeding woman was wheeled away on a stretcher.”Everything was blood. I saw half a body – I don’t know if it was the terrorist or the guard,” said a witness who gave his name as Bentzi.Police said nine civilians and the bomber were killed and dozens were wounded.The attack was the deadliest since a double suicide bombing on two buses in the southern city of Beersheba killed 16 people on Aug. 31, 2004. It was the second major Passover bombing in four years. An 2002 attack at a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya killed 29 people and triggered a major Israeli military offensive.Israeli President Moshe Katsav appealed to the Palestinians to reject violence: “We want to believe that the political path of the Hamas government is not the path of the Palestinians.”Islamic Jihad identified the bomber as Samer Hammad, 21, from a village outside the West Bank town of Jenin.In a video released by the group, Hammad said the bombing was dedicated to the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails. “There are many other bombers on the way,” he said, wearing an Islamic Jihad headband.Islamic Jihad was behind eight of the nine suicide bombings since a Feb. 8, 2005, truce declaration.The group’s exiled leader, Ramadan Shallah, said Sunday that its militants were making “nonstop efforts” to infiltrate suicide bombers into Israel.The attack complicated Hamas’ effort to raise money for the bankrupt Palestinian treasury. Hamas is two weeks late paying March salaries for the government’s 140,000 workers.The U.S. and European Union cut off aid to the government because Hamas refused their demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel also stopped transferring tens of millions of tax dollars it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf every month.Hamas said it would turn to Muslim countries to make up the shortfall. Iran and Qatar each pledged $50 million to the Palestinian Authority.Vail, Colorado

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