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Attack Shatters Calm in Mideast

Special to The Times

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a crowded beachfront bar late Friday in an attack against Israel that shattered a months-long period of relative calm and instantly threw a shadow over tentative but promising steps toward peace talks.

At least four people were killed and 50 wounded in the attack, police said. The death toll could have been higher had the bomber succeeded in entering the bar or struck at a later hour, when more customers would have been expected.

Leading militant groups denied responsibility and Palestinian officials immediately condemned the attack, the first of its kind in nearly four months, calling it a strike against “the interests of the Palestinian people.” Israel demanded that the Palestinian Authority and its newly installed government take stronger action against militants to demonstrate their commitment to ending such attacks.

The reactions from Israel and the Palestinian Authority were relatively restrained, with both sides apparently eager not to extinguish what had seemed the brightest prospects in some time for a return to negotiations after 4 1/2 years of unremitting violence.

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The governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have taken halting but welcome steps in recent weeks to build up goodwill and trust, which the bombing could jeopardize.

For more than a month, Israel and the Palestinian militias had largely held to an informal cease-fire. Israeli spokesman Raanan Gissin said that his government would continue to adhere to the truce, which was announced at a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt between Abbas and Sharon.

“We remain committed to what we have decided in Sharm el Sheik,” Gissin told CNN, referring the Egyptian resort where the talks were held. “We hope that the Palestinian Authority and the newly formed government will take the next steps to make good on their pledges, their commitments to stop all terror activity.”

The Palestinian Authority immediately offered to set up a joint investigation with Israel into the bombing, said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

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“Whoever is behind this attack has one goal in mind: sabotage the peace process, undermine Palestinian democracy ... and derail the process of reviving hope in the mind of Palestinians and Israelis,” Erekat said.

But identifying those responsible may prove difficult. Despite early reports, both Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, two of the most active Palestinian militant groups, denied involvement in the attack. Other observers speculated that Lebanon-based Hezbollah was behind the bombing. Israel accuses the Shiite Muslim extremist group of instigating and financing many Palestinian attacks.

In the past, militant groups have been quick to take responsibility for bombings. In this case, no group has rushed to claim the attack.

“We are committed to the quiet. We have no relationship to what happened tonight,” Mohammed Hindi, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, told the Arabic news channel Al Arabiya.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Israel and the West Bank this month to promote the peace process, called on the Palestinian Authority to “take immediate, credible steps to find those responsible for this terrorist attack and bring them to justice.... We now must see actions that send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated.”

In recent weeks, Israel made a number of conciliatory gestures, including the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners, a dramatic scaling back of military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a halt to its much-criticized policy of demolishing homes belonging to the families of suicide bombers.

Despite the lull, several Palestinians have been killed in various incidents, including one who was shot to death Friday in Gaza by Israeli soldiers.

Sharon also offered to return some West Bank towns to Palestinian control, but those talks hit snags. Friday’s bombing was likely to further delay the Israeli pullback, even though no large-scale military retaliation was planned, Israeli media said.

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“We will have to examine ourselves and see where we need to tighten the screws, and the Palestinians, too, will have to see where they need to do the same,” said Gideon Ezra, the Israeli minister for public security. “We will not let this attack slide. And what the Palestinians are doing at the moment is insufficient.”

Palestinian officials reject such complaints, saying their security infrastructure in the West Bank has been devastated by the continuing presence of Israeli soldiers and tanks.

The bombing in Tel Aviv jolted Israelis, comforted by four months of calm, out of a growing confidence that Palestinian violence was on the wane. Some commercial establishments had begun reducing security in light of the cease-fire, reflecting the rising optimism since the death in November of Yasser Arafat and the election last month of Abbas, a pragmatist who has called for an end to the intifada.

Just this week, however, Israeli police officials warned people not to grow complacent, noting that official “terror alerts” remained high and that attacks by Palestinian militants were still being planned, if not successfully executed.

At the Stage bar, the target of Friday’s bombing, owner Yinon Fogel told Israeli media that he had not cut back on security and still employed four guards, one of them armed.

Lines outside the popular watering hole are long, and witnesses said at least one suspicious-looking man joined the line Friday night. Not long afterward, at about 11:30 p.m., a bomb spiked with nails ripped through the crowd. Body parts were strewn on the street, windows shattered and cars wrecked.

“There was a huge shock wave, and everything was collapsing around me,” said Tom Shemesh, 27, who was working at his father’s sidewalk kiosk next door. “I couldn’t get out of the kiosk because bodies were blocking the way. Everything was just blown apart.”

Young people wandered in the street, dazed, bloodied and crying. “We were very near to this bomb,” said Meirav Ayash, 20. “Everybody was screaming, ‘Pigua, pigua!’ ” -- Hebrew for terrorist attack.

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The Tel Aviv promenade, one of the busiest spots in Israel on weekend evenings, has been a frequent target of suicide bombers. Attackers previously struck a disco in 2001, killing 21 people, and Mike’s Place, a popular pub close to the U.S. Consulate, in 2003, leaving three dead.

The last suicide bombing to hit Israeli civilians also occurred in Tel Aviv, in a market, on Nov. 1. That attack killed three people.

Friday’s bombing comes at a difficult time for Sharon, who is under fire from the right wing for his recently approved plan to dismantle Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip this summer. The attack is likely to give his foes more political ammunition, especially with a key budget vote coming up that could affect his withdrawal plans.

Israel is likely to increase pressure on Abbas to crack down on militant groups rather than woo them into compliance, as has been his strategy so far. After the blast, the Palestinian president convened an emergency meeting with his security chiefs and promised to find and punish those responsible.

The bombing came barely a week before a scheduled meeting in Cairo of all Palestinian militant organizations based in Syria, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, to discuss the informal cease-fire with Israel.

The militant groups have been reluctant to call the lull a formal hudna, or truce, as they did two years ago in a brief reprieve cut short by the killing of several militants by Israeli troops and several suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.

All sides -- including the Israeli military establishment -- now refer to the current period as one of tahdia, or calm.

Times staff writer Chu reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Zer from Tel Aviv. Staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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