Arab Suicide Bomber Kills 12 in 4th Attack on Israel in 9 Days
As the Israeli government deployed thousands of soldiers and police to protect Jerusalem, a suicide bomber turned on Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, blowing himself up in a crowded crosswalk by the city’s busiest shopping center. The blast killed 12 other people and wounded 109.
The bombing was the fourth in Israel in just over a week, bringing the nine-day death toll to at least 60 in a severe blow to the peace process. It deepened Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ political crisis and pushed his government into a war against Islamic extremists.
The explosion threw the country into a panic as Israelis realized that they were in the middle of a terrorist offensive unlike any they had experienced in the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed himself and 18 other people on a bus in downtown Jerusalem, a week to the day after two previous bombings in Jerusalem and the city of Ashkelon.
“The message is that there is a terrorist campaign and not single attacks,” said Ehud Yaari, Arab affairs analyst for Israeli television. “This Hamas group has the infrastructure to carry out attacks whenever it sees fit to do so.”
The Islamic extremist group Hamas claimed responsibility for Monday’s blast in anonymous telephone calls to Israeli radio, as it did in the previous three bombings. One caller identified the Tel Aviv bomber as 24-year-old Saleh Abdel Rahim of Ramallah, a West Bank city.
Another caller said the attack was a joint operation with the militant group Islamic Jihad, and claimed it was a response to Peres’ declaration of war against the fundamentalists Sunday night. The caller warned the Israeli government not to make any other “foolish” decisions or Hamas would strike again.
Tel Aviv Police Chief Gabi Last said the bomber was on foot when he blew himself up about 4 p.m. in a downtown teeming with shoppers and young people dressed in festive costumes for the Jewish holiday of Purim. At least three teenagers were among the dead.
The blast, involving about 25 to 30 pounds of TNT packed with nails, left the city center looking like a war zone of mangled bodies, charred automobiles and blown-out store windows. Police poured into the area around Dizengoff and King George streets with dogs to sniff for any more bombs, while emergency crews evacuated dazed and bloodied survivors and cleared out the dead. Ultra-Orthodox Jews cleaned up body pieces for burial.
Police and city officials said they had information that made them fear an attack in Tel Aviv and called off scheduled Purim street celebrations. They said increased security in the area where many youths nonetheless gathered may have prevented the bomber from entering the busy Dizengoff Street shopping center, where an indoor blast most likely would have caused even more casualties.
In a scene repeated several times in the last week, Peres visited the bomb site amid heavy security to face angry calls for his resignation from hundreds of protesters, several of whom invoked the chilling chant of “Yigal Amir.”
Amir is the Jewish law student who is on trial for assassinating Peres’ predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, just down the street in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4. Amir killed Rabin because he opposes Israel’s peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Dizengoff Street was the site of one of Hamas’ first suicide bus bombings in protest against the 1993 peace accord between Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Twenty-two people were killed in that 1994 blast.
After Monday’s explosion, Peres held an emergency Cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and announced that he was establishing a joint-forces command to fight the terrorists. He put it under the authority of Gen. Ami Ayalon, the new chief of Israel’s General Security Service, which is also known as Shin Bet.
“We will go to any corner where this perverse terror has taken root,” Peres said after the meeting. “Israel can be confident that we are recruiting every resource we possibly can. I cannot, unfortunately, promise that from now on everything will proceed smoothly. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can tell you that we shall overcome this.”
Peres, who is also defense minister, declined to comment on specific measures the government might take against Hamas, but he reportedly was considering deportations of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory and military raids against Hamas targets in areas under Palestinian rule.
In general terms, Peres said, “this is a war in defense of the state of Israel. We are allowed, even obligated, to take such actions.”
Palestinian security officials warned that they would view an Israeli military raid as a violation of the peace agreement and an attack against Palestinian sovereignty.
President Clinton, who had a long talk with Peres after the bombing, denounced the wave of attacks and appeared to offer Israel support for a military response.
“Those who are responsible for this should be held accountable for it,” Clinton said. He also said Arafat must do more to prevent violence against Israelis.
Arafat, fighting to save the rapidly unraveling peace accord, condemned the Tel Aviv attack and said he was taking steps against the Islamic groups carrying out the bombings, making scores of arrests.
Israel Radio quoted Israeli security sources as saying that Arafat had failed to arrest leaders of the military wings of the Islamic groups, but Peres said Arafat had arrested four of 13 alleged terrorists on Israel’s most-wanted list. He did not elaborate.
Hamas had claimed that the first three suicide bombings were in retaliation for the assassination Jan. 5 of Hamas bomb maker Yehiya Ayash in the Gaza Strip. The killing is widely believed to have been an Israeli undercover operation.
Hamas issued a leaflet Sunday saying that the revenge campaign had concluded and offering a three-month cease-fire to negotiate with Israel via the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority, but it reserved the right to violate its own cease-fire.
The group has said it wants all of its prisoners released and amnesty from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, among other demands.
On Sunday, Peres approved a plan to physically separate the West Bank from Israel to try to keep terrorists out.
Early Monday, as more than 1,000 extra soldiers and police moved in to try to protect Jerusalem, security officials arrested dozens of suspected Hamas members in the West Bank and sealed the homes of the first two suicide bombers at the al-Fawar refugee camp near Hebron. The houses are to be demolished as a deterrent to future bombers.
Security chief Ayalon told Cabinet members, however, that hundreds of young Palestinian boys were waiting in the wings to be suicide bombers and that 40 such teenagers had been arrested at al-Fawar on Monday morning.
The government also began preparing a 1.2-mile-wide buffer zone from near the northern West Bank town of Janin to the southern hills near Hebron. The zone will fall on the West Bank side of what the government says will be a series of guard posts, fences and electronic-monitoring stations.
“The purpose is to make life more difficult for perpetrators of terror trying to infiltrate into Israel,” said government spokesman Uri Dromi. He said the zone could cost more than $100 million to create and maintain.
Fearing further reprisals by the Israeli government, Palestinians throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem reportedly were stocking up on food and gas.
Private schools in East Jerusalem suspended classes for today as the Israeli government announced that it planned to close down a handful of institutions there believed to be connected to Hamas.
Times staff writer Miller reported from Jerusalem, special correspondent Hauser from Tel Aviv.
* FIGHTING MIDEAST TERROR: Clinton ordered aides to devise ways to combat extremists. A8