Twin Blasts in Israel Kill 23, Injure Scores

Times Staff Writers

A working-class neighborhood here was thronged with foreign laborers just knocking off for the day when two suicide bombers, a street apart, detonated their deadly loads within two minutes of each other at dusk Sunday.

Including the bombers, 25 people were killed and more than 100 injured by the twin blasts, which shook two parallel streets in the Neve Shaanan district, a seedy neighborhood of bars, brothels and cash exchanges. The rush-hour carnage marked the most devastating such attack since 29 people died in a Passover bombing in March at a coastal hotel near Tel Aviv.

The attack came just three weeks before Israeli elections in which one of the dividing lines between the Likud Party candidate, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Amram Mitzna of the Labor Party is their approaches to dealing with the Palestinians.

However, both the hard-line Sharon and the more dovish Mitzna condemned the attack in the strongest language.

"We see again today the severe nature of the things that the state of Israel is facing," Sharon said. "Our goal is to stop the brutal terror and to achieve calm and quiet. Only when the brutal terror is stopped will we be able to have peace."

In Washington, President Bush termed the attack "a despicable act of murder."

"The United States remains determined to continue our efforts toward peace in the Middle East, a goal that the terrorists seek to destroy," Bush said.

As of late Sunday, it was not clear how many of those killed in the two explosions were foreigners, but many of the injured were from overseas, according to police spokesman Gil Kleiman.

In early evening, the neighborhood's narrow streets are usually crowded with Filipino, Vietnamese, Ghanaian and Chinese workers, many of them illegal immigrants, as well as blue-collar Israelis looking to relax with a beer, pick up a woman or catch a bus home.

It was about 6:30 p.m. when the first bomb exploded in front of a bus stop. Some panicked bystanders scrambled away, only to run headlong into shrapnel from the second blast. The later bomb blew up outside Checkpoint, a currency exchange where foreign workers had lined up to change shekels, the Israeli currency, into dollars or euros, which are more useful to family members at home. The block it sits on is popular with immigrants -- next door is a telephone exchange to call home.

The site was close to that of a double bombing in July that killed five people, including the assailants, and a suicide bombing a year ago that injured more than 30.

Eugene Schreiber, 53, was perched on a fence waiting for his bus to the suburbs when the night flashed with white light. It's lightning, he told himself. Schreiber had come to the neighborhood to go to his bank and was headed home to his wife and 17-year-old daughter. He heard a huge explosion. Then he couldn't hear anything.

"After that I understood," said the security guard, who immigrated to Israel from Moscow a decade ago. "I understood this was a terrorist attack."

Schreiber was carrying on his back a thick sack of rice he had bought in the neighborhood, and he believes that the buffer saved his life. He was thrown off the fence and fell on one leg. His bag of rice was torn to shreds.

"Instead of my back," he said, shuddering between words as he lay on a Tel Aviv hospital cot.

Prone on the pavement, he watched the chaos, too shocked to realize he had hurt his leg.

"I saw something terrible. People were crawling on the ground with blood on their stomachs and their backs. I saw a lot of people. They were all full of blood. It was terrible. I was thinking that it's terrible, that we cannot go on like this, we have to stop them."

The blasts were particularly large, according to police, who said they believed each of the bombers was either carrying or wearing between 20 and 30 pounds of explosives. One witness, Motti Dayan, 51, had stopped in a cafe for a beer and to make a phone call when the first blast hit.

"I stepped outside, holding coins in one hand and a pint of beer in the other. All of a sudden, I was shoved back into the coffee place, the beer spilled on the floor, and I tripped over a table," Dayan recalled. "The blast was so powerful I couldn't sit up. I could hear the people scream, but I couldn't understand them, because right then there was a second explosion."

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, took responsibility for the attack. In a statement, the group identified the two bombers as residents of the West Bank city of Nablus and gave their names as Burak Khilsa and Samer Nouri. The group said that the attack was in response to Israeli army actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that have killed Palestinians. Earlier in the evening, two other Palestinian groups had claimed responsibility.

However, the Palestinian Authority released a statement saying it "condemned the killing of civilians." And Palestinian Authority Minister of Culture and Information Yasser Abed-Rabbo said: "It was a stupid act, and it hurts the Palestinian national interest."

The Israeli Cabinet began meeting close to midnight to consider how to retaliate, and Israeli army radio reported a helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip a short while later.

In Tel Aviv, the number of injured coming into hospitals inched up through the evening as foreign workers trickled in. Many had been afraid to come for treatment for fear they could face deportation because they are in Israel illegally.

In the dingy neighborhood around Neve Shaanan, foreign tongues are heard as often as Hebrew. On Sunday, frazzled doctors struggled to communicate with the wounded. A representative of the Philippine Embassy paced the hospital corridors in search of Philippine citizens. Women beat their palms on their legs and wailed in grief.

The Israeli government quickly took to the airwaves with English-language public service announcements urging injured workers to seek medical help. Regardless of their visa status, the officials promised, bombing victims would not be arrested or detained.

But the fear wasn't easily dispelled. Some did not want to take the risk.

Although his leg was slashed by shrapnel, Patrick Jansen, a Ghanaian illegal immigrant, hesitated for more than an hour before going to the hospital.

He was talking to a friend when he heard the first explosion, so he ran, but he found he had run in the direction of the second explosion. Then metal sliced into his leg. Although he has lived in Israel for eight years, he is planning to leave.

"After what happened right now, I don't like Israel. If you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn't stay," the 38-year-old house cleaner said.

According to government estimates, Tel Aviv has between 60,000 and 80,000 foreign workers. They have gradually replaced Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and West Bank in menial jobs.

"Of the people killed, there were quite a few foreigners, which means that the terror is indiscriminate. It means it's against any human being -- it doesn't matter their nationality, their religion," said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. "It's just coldblooded murder of anyone who is around."

Naana Holdbrook, 41, from Ghana, was in his apartment near the blast site when the explosions occurred. He said that many people he knew were reluctant to go to the hospital for fear of deportation and that, above all, the attack was a reminder that life in Israel can be as fragile as in the countries they fled.

"This is the situation in Israel. It could happen to anybody," he said.

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Rubin reported from Jerusalem and Stack from Tel Aviv.

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