A powerful bomb ripped apart a crowded cafeteria at Jerusalem's Hebrew University on Wednesday, killing seven people--three of them Americans--and wounding nearly 100 others as they were sitting down to lunch. Israeli Jews and Arabs and other foreign nationals were also among the casualties.
The military wing of Hamas, a radical Islamic group, claimed responsibility for the attack at Israel's oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education. The bombing, inside a student center named for Frank Sinatra, was to avenge Israel's killing last week of the top Hamas military commander and 14 other Palestinians, most of them children, a Hamas spokesman said.
Israeli police said the nail-studded bomb appeared to have been hidden in a bag and planted under or on top of cafeteria tables, then detonated by an assailant who escaped--a departure from the suicide bombings that have terrorized Israel for months.
Besides the three Americans killed, four were injured, a State Department spokeswoman said in Washington.
One of the dead was identified by a family spokesman as 36-year-old Janis Ruth Coulter, assistant director of graduate studies based at Hebrew University's New York office, Associated Press reported.
Coulter had been escorting U.S. students to Israel, the spokesman, Harry King, said in Boston, where the victim's family lives. "Janis Ruth was a wonderful, loving, caring person," he said.
The attack shattered a sense--an illusion, perhaps--that the university was an oasis, a sanctuary from daily violence. The sprawling Mt. Scopus campus on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem was a place of higher learning for Jews and Arabs, as well as foreign students. It had remained relatively free of the strife engulfing the world just outside its metal gates.
Especially in the cafeteria, where the bomb wreaked devastation, students of many nationalities and ethnic backgrounds had mixed casually--a rarity in a land polarized by hatred and revenge.
Despite the summer break, the university was busy. Hundreds of students were present to take exams. Summer Hebrew-language courses popular with foreigners had just begun.
"No one would have expected this to happen here," Alastair Goldrein, a British national taking Jewish studies at the school, told reporters at the scene. He had just approached the cafeteria when the explosion shook the ground. "Why would someone target this university? This is what was best about Israel."
Dazed, blood-spattered students staggered from the building in the minutes after the blast. Rescue workers rushed up the narrow streets to the cafeteria, located at the heart of the campus.
The interior was etched in panic. Upturned chairs were scattered on the bloodied floor; abandoned water bottles littered the tables. The force of the blast blew windows and glass facades to bits and tore panels from the ceiling. The stench of smoke and burned flesh wafted through the air.
"After the blast, everything went black, and you feel like you are trapped inside a balloon, being sucked away or dragged by some force," Yossi Halfon told Israeli radio. "I found myself running outside, away from the cafeteria."
The Israeli government branded the bombing "a despicable act so horrendous it defies words." It said it makes no distinction between Hamas and other Palestinian factions, including the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, on whom Israeli officials said the ultimate blame rests.
"No cause, no sense of deprivation, no argument can possibly justify killing innocent teenagers in a discotheque, in a coffee shop or, today, in the cafeteria of Hebrew University," said Dore Gold, an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing but said Sharon and his "policies of destruction and collective punishment" bore the ultimate blame.
In Washington, President Bush condemned the bombing. "There are clearly killers who hate the thought of peace and, therefore, are willing to take their hatred to all kinds of places, including a university," he said.
Wednesday's attack was the second Palestinian bombing in two days. On Tuesday, a 17-year-old Palestinian blew himself up at a popular falafel stand in central Jerusalem, wounding five people but killing no one else.
Hamas is threatening a long campaign of revenge attacks. Even before Wednesday's bombing, Israel's top internal security official, Avi Dichter, had told a parliamentary committee that intelligence services believed that at least 60 attacks were being planned.
"If they are going to attack our children, then they will have to expect to drink from the same poison," Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh said Wednesday in Gaza City, where hundreds of Hamas supporters poured into the streets late in the day to celebrate the university bombing and vow more attacks.
Sharon convened his senior security advisors Wednesday afternoon to plan the government's retaliation. Earlier, Israel finally released $15 million to the Palestinian Authority, part of money owed but retained as a punitive measure. Several of Sharon's government ministers demanded, in the aftermath of the Hebrew University attack, that no more money be released and that Israel suspend all contact with Palestinian officials--contacts that were only beginning to be renewed.
Desperate to find a way to halt attacks that have continued despite Israel's reoccupation of most of the West Bank, Sharon's Cabinet decided before the cafeteria bombing to deport to the Gaza Strip a male relative of a Palestinian man suspected in a recent deadly shooting attack outside a Jewish settlement.
Punishing the relatives of alleged terrorists is a controversial move. When the government first floated the idea several weeks ago, there was intense international criticism, and Israel's attorney general said deportation could not be carried out en masse or imposed on relatives who have no link to the attack.
Early today in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, the army destroyed the family home of the Palestinian who carried out Tuesday's food-stand bombing.
At Hebrew University, officials said that they had redoubled security in recent months but that an open campus could not be hermetically sealed--not, said university Vice President Moshe Vigdor, "if you want to maintain a living, breathing campus, visited by 20,000 people a year."
Guards posted at perimeter gates and at the entrances to main buildings routinely search book bags, backpacks and purses. But in the spirit of educational freedom, police are not stationed throughout the campus.
Several student leaders were critical of what they called lax security. They said it was easy to gain access to the campus from the adjacent Palestinian village of Issawiyeh by scaling a low fence and scampering through the gardens.
The university's student newspaper, Pi Haaton, published an account in April called "Chronicle of an Attack Foretold," in which it predicted a bombing in the same student center that was the scene of Wednesday's tragedy.
Benny Vered, the paper's deputy editor, said that for a related story he held a large sign saying "terrorist" and jumped over the fence. "I just crossed back and forth for 40 minutes, and no one looked twice," Vered told Israeli radio Wednesday. "The security at the entrances to the university is actually relatively good. But it's like placing a door in the middle of the desert and guarding it closely, while ignoring the rest."
The Mt. Scopus campus is adjacent to several Arab neighborhoods. In what was considered a major event in Zionist history, the university was inaugurated on the site in 1925, before the establishment of the state of Israel. It flourished until Israel's 1948 War of Independence, when it became disconnected from Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem. An alternative campus was established in West Jerusalem. After Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, the Mt. Scopus facility regained its status as the main campus.
The Frank Sinatra Center is named for the late singer, who with other West Coast benefactors donated money for its construction.
Of an estimated 23,000 students at Hebrew University, about 20% are Arab and about 1,500 are foreigners.
"We were an oasis of coexistence," Hebrew University rector Haim Rabinowitch said in an interview. "We have differences of opinion, Jews, Arabs, religious, secular. A university by definition is a place of plural ideas.... The terrorists broke all the rules."
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.