18 Die, Scores Hurt by Suicide Blast in Tel Aviv

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the deadliest terror attack in Israel in years, a suicide bomber mingled with crowds outside a row of popular nightclubs on Tel Aviv's seaside boardwalk late Friday, then blew himself up, killing at least 17 Israeli youths and wounding more than 85 others.

The carnage left the busy beachfront awash in grotesque scenes. Bodies were scattered on the ground, and bloodied survivors struggled to find help, hugging one another and screaming in anguish. One boy, his leg severed, tried to run but fell. Ambulances rushed to the site, and helicopters hovered overhead in the warm night air as police searched for more explosives.

More than 550 Palestinians and Israelis have been killed in the last eight months of conflict, but Friday night's bombing crossed a threshold of cruelty.

The radical Islamic Jihad organization reportedly claimed responsibility, as it has in other deadly bombings in recent weeks. But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put the blame squarely on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

"This was a murder of children," cried Roni Milo, the former mayor of Tel Aviv.

The bloodletting will undoubtedly force Sharon to mete out swift punishment. He called emergency consultations early today, breaking the Jewish Sabbath, to discuss retaliation.

The Israeli army announced early today that it was tightening its blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and had ordered all Palestinians to return to their homes in those areas. Israeli television reported that the army was drafting a new list of potential targets, including senior Palestinian officials.

Israeli politicians of all stripes joined ordinary citizens Friday night in expressions of outrage and demands for revenge.

Sharon was already under intensifying pressure to crack down on Palestinian militants. The past week saw Palestinian gunmen ambush and kill four Jewish settlers in barely 48 hours. Bereaved settlers publicly took Sharon to task for failing to protect them, and far-right members of his government were threatening to quit in protest.

Having declared a unilateral cease-fire 11 days ago, Israel has seen terrorist attacks only increase. Polls published earlier Friday showed that more than half the public opposed continuing the cease-fire.

"Our restraint cannot go on any longer," said Gideon Ezra, deputy public security minister. "This attack crosses a line, and the people of Israel have run out of patience. People will have to be strong because we are headed for a hard war against targets we have not hit until now."

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, urged Israel to retaliate.

"Enough is enough," Hier said. "No country, including the United States, would ever stand idly by without immediately striking back. And all this carnage [is] being inflicted even as Israel has been observing a unilateral cease-fire in the hopes of rekindling the peace process. Ultimately, Yasser Arafat is responsible for this atrocity."

The suicide bomber chose his target for maximum destruction. Friday night on Tel Aviv's Mediterranean shore bustles with activity well into the wee hours. Crowds of mostly young people pack the boardwalk, patronizing the strip of hotels, restaurants and hip bars.

Hundreds of youths were outside the Waterworld disco when the bomber apparently cut in line. About 11:30 p.m., he detonated what was thought to be a bomb studded with nails and other metal, spewing shrapnel for hundreds of feet.

"All of a sudden I heard a huge explosion," said a medic who was at the scene. "People were flying in the air. I ran to try to pull out the living from the dead. It was a crowd of 16-, 17-year-olds."

Pools of blood and pieces of flesh covered the asphalt promenade. Youths wearing disco spandex were sprawled on the ground as ambulances and paramedics converged. Purses, backpacks and shoes were scattered over the area. Windows in cars parked for blocks around were smashed.

Many of the young people jostling to get into the club were Russian immigrants. Emergency services quickly established a Russian-language hotline for parents to call looking for their children.

"People were inside dancing, and the explosion was so loud we even heard it above the music," said one club-goer, Liran Tetrazil.

Another witness, who identified himself as Dror, told Israeli radio that he came across a girl who had been thrown to the ground. "She was lying there on her stomach," he said. "I rolled her over and suddenly saw blood and pieces of flesh. She began shaking. I tried to bring her back to life, but she died in my arms."

Club owners said that an hour later, more than 1,000 people would have been waiting in the lines.

Officials at the three hospitals that were taking in victims said a total of 17 Israelis were killed and more than 85 wounded, including three who were near death.

Nightspots and places where young people gather have for weeks been targets of terrorist bombings. On Sunday, two car bombs rocked a downtown Jerusalem bar district; there were no serious casualties. A car bomb went off near a high school in Netanya on Wednesday, causing only minor injuries.

The Islamic Jihad and other radical Palestinian organizations may have two goals: to disrupt the normalcy that many Israelis have struggled to maintain in their lives and to target children.

Yossi Sidbon, Tel Aviv's district police commander, said Friday's bombing was one of the worst in Israeli history. Not since a series of bus attacks in 1996 have terrorist bombings claimed so many victims.

Sharon won a landslide election in February on a promise to restore security to Israeli citizens. Despite a series of increasingly aggressive tactics, however, he has failed to halt the Palestinian revolt. Past attacks and bombings by Palestinians have been met with Israeli shelling of strategic targets, police posts and offices of Arafat's Fatah movement.

On May 18, Sharon unleashed F-16 warplanes against Palestinian targets in retaliation for a suicide bombing at a shopping mall that killed five Israelis. Yet attacks continue, and the Islamic Jihad vowed after Friday's attack to stage at least five more bombings.

The options facing Sharon remain limited, unless he decides to write off dealing with Arafat once and for all.

"We will have to decide on new measures, even if we don't like them," said Ezra, the deputy security minister.

There has been a growing debate within Israeli military and political circles about whether Arafat should be formally declared an enemy and an effort made to deport or otherwise remove him from power. Several members of Sharon's government advocate destroying the Palestinian Authority, Arafat's administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The risks of such a scenario, in addition to international condemnation, is that any leaders who rise to replace Arafat might be less predictable or less willing to negotiate with Israel. And a bloody power struggle might ensue within the Palestinian territories.

Although the Islamic Jihad and Hamas have claimed responsibility for most of the recent terrorism, Sharon's government no longer makes a distinction between the radical factions and the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials hold Arafat accountable because he released numerous Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants from jail after the current intifada, or uprising, began last September.

"The mask has fallen off Arafat, and now the world knows the true man," Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Friday night. "His fingerprints are all over this [bombing] . . . dripping in blood."

Gissin added that the government will not make "careless" decisions but will act decisively and prudently to ensure the security of Israelis.

"After eight months, it is now time for the world to realize who the real victim is," he said.

In Washington, President Bush quickly condemned the attack and called on Arafat to do the same.

"There is no justification for senseless attacks against innocent civilians," Bush said in a statement released by the White House. "I call upon Chairman Arafat to condemn this act and to call for an immediate cease-fire."

Ahmed Korei, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a key advisor to Arafat, rejected accusations that the Palestinian Authority was to blame. He told the Al Jazeera television station that the Palestinian Authority condemns the killing of all civilians, Israeli or Palestinian.

Sometime later, a spokesman for Arafat told Reuters that Arafat "condemns such attacks, especially against civilians, and calls on all sides to show self-restraint. We also call for an end to the military escalation and siege and all forms of violence and a return to the negotiations in order to achieve a just and comprehensive peace."

The bombing followed the relatively tranquil funeral early Friday of a senior Palestinian leader.

Thousands of Palestinians were allowed to march into East Jerusalem for the burial of Faisal Husseini near the revered Al Aqsa mosque. Husseini, the Palestinian official in charge of Jerusalem and scion of local Arab aristocracy, had embodied Palestinian claims on the holy city, and his funeral became a show of nationalism and defiance.

Normally, Israeli-imposed security restrictions block entrance to the city for most Palestinians. But Friday, with Israeli police in force but standing back, the Palestinians coursed through East Jerusalem streets, hoisted flags representing the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant Hezbollah organization, and chanted "Allahu akbar!" (God is great!).

They clambered over the ancient walls of the Old City, celebrating what many saw as a "liberation" of Jerusalem, albeit a brief one.

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Times special correspondent Gabriella Sobelman in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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