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Suicide Bombing Stokes Israel-Hamas Tensions

Special to The Times

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a popular fast-food restaurant Monday, killing nine other people, injuring nearly 60 and greatly heightening hostilities between Israel and the new Hamas-dominated Palestinian government.

It was the first such attack in Israel since Hamas took power nearly three weeks ago, and the Islamist group infuriated Israel by describing the bombing as a form of self-defense. In the past, elected Palestinian officials made a practice of publicly, though often tepidly, condemning attacks against Israeli civilians.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the blast, which occurred on the second-to-last day of the weeklong Passover holiday. Its toll was the highest in a suicide bombing since August 2004.

In the hours after the attack, Israeli troops began carrying out arrest raids in the northern West Bank. More than a dozen suspected militants had been picked up by nightfall. Israeli aircraft also bombed what was described as a suspected rocket workshop in Gaza City overnight. No casualties were reported.

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Since the Hamas government was sworn in March 29, it has vacillated between hard-line rhetoric and conciliatory statements that appeared aimed at staving off a cutoff of foreign aid. But Monday, Hamas officials made little effort to distance themselves from the attack.

“This is the natural result of continued Israeli aggression and escalation and can only be considered a form of self-defense,” said Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group.

The powerful blast, in a crowded neighborhood near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, scattered body parts, broken glass and debris for dozens of yards. Blood pooled on the asphalt and smeared the windows of nearby cars.

The rundown area around the bus station was packed with lunchtime strollers and shoppers at the time of the bombing. Many Israelis are working shorter hours during Passover.

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In the moments after the blast, a familiar tableau took shape: bloodied and unconscious figures, screaming onlookers, paramedics who treated the most gravely injured right on the pavement. Medical officials sent out a nationwide appeal for blood donations.

“I ran to help, but couldn’t bear what I saw -- people without arms and legs, a scrap of human flesh on a tabletop,” said Itzik Eliav, who owns a kiosk nearby.

Israeli media reported that among the dead was a woman killed in front of her husband and children. Also killed was a security guard who witnesses said prevented the bomber from entering the building.

The sandwich shop, called the Mayor’s Falafel, had been targeted just three months ago in a bombing that injured more than 20 people but killed only the attacker.

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Israel had been on high alert against attacks during Passover, which ends tonight. For many here, the bombing stirred memories of one of the worst attacks of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada: a suicide bombing at a Passover Seder four years ago in the coastal city of Netanya, which killed 29 people.

Islamic Jihad released a videotape of a young man it identified as the bomber: Sami Hammed, from a village outside the West Bank town of Jenin. “There are many other bombers on the way,” the youth said on the tape.

A day earlier, an exiled Islamic Jihad leader, Ramadan Shalah, had declared on the group’s website that it was making “nonstop efforts” to carry out a bombing in Israel.

The group was responsible for all six suicide bombings that occurred in Israel last year, and Israeli troops have arrested or killed dozens of Islamic Jihad members in recent months.

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The attack came just hours before the swearing-in of Israel’s new Knesset, or parliament, whose 120 members were elected March 28. The new government, to be led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his centrist Kadima party, is expected to be formed in coming weeks.

At the inauguration ceremony, there was little of the celebratory mood that normally accompanies a swearing-in.

“We will now assess how and when we will respond to this attack,” Olmert told a meeting of his party’s faction afterward. Later, he convened a meeting of his “security Cabinet,” his most senior advisors on military affairs.

The bombing laid bare the fault lines within the Palestinian government. In contrast to Hamas’ defiant comments, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a swift condemnation. Abbas’ Fatah faction, trounced in the recent elections, has been increasingly at odds with the Hamas-led Cabinet, and Abbas has been trying to bolster the powers of his executive branch.

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Although Hamas itself has not carried out a suicide bombing in more than a year, Israeli officials said its reaction to Monday’s attack was proof that the group did not intend to renounce violence.

“It’s regrettable that the first stance this new Hamas government is taking shows it is a terrorist government, a government that supports and exonerates terrorism,” said Raanan Gissin, an official in the prime minister’s office.

Another senior Israeli official, David Baker, described Hamas as a catalyst for future attacks. Even dovish elder statesman Shimon Peres said he saw little chance for peace negotiations with the Hamas-led government.

“It’s doubtful the Hamas government will survive,” Peres said on Israel Radio. “They are denying Israel’s right to exist. They are not recognizing agreements that have been signed, so what point is there in signing new agreements with them?”

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Peres cautioned, though, against treating all Palestinians like extremists.

“There are Palestinians who are still seeking peace,” he said. “Terror is not eternal. Negotiations will resume in the future.”

The White House condemned Monday’s attack and the subsequent Hamas statements.

“Defense or sponsorship of terrorist acts by officials of the Palestinian Cabinet will have the gravest effects on relations between the [Palestinian Authority] and all states seeking peace in the Middle East,” it said in a statement.

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With direct Western aid to the Palestinian government cut off, Hamas has been under increasing financial pressure. More than 140,000 civil servants and police went unpaid this month, sending ripples of distress through the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where nearly one-third of the population is sustained by government salaries.

Some analysts suggested that the bellicose response to Monday’s bombing could be an effort by Hamas to bolster faltering popular support and please potential patrons such as Iran, which over the weekend pledged $50 million to the Palestinian Authority.

That aid, combined with $50 million pledged Monday by Qatar, would be enough to cover this month’s government payroll, though the timing of the money’s arrival was uncertain.

Other observers saw signs of a growing split within the Hamas movement, with relative pragmatists such as Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh finding themselves outflanked by hard-line members of the group’s leadership in exile. Haniyeh was silent about the attack.

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“On the one hand they want to govern, and on the other hand they cannot abandon the ideology of terror, or they risk losing the support of the street and outside support,” said Shmuel Sandler, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “At some point they have to make a decision, but I don’t know if they have a leader strong enough to do that.”

The attack came against a backdrop of growing frustration among Israeli officials over the military’s failure to stem almost daily firings of crude homemade rockets by Palestinian militants, despite a concerted campaign of artillery fire aimed at the Gaza Strip. Most of the casualties from the Israeli shelling were believed to have been militants, though an 8-year-old Palestinian girl was killed last week. On Sunday, half a dozen human rights groups went to court to try to prevent the army from firing so close to populated areas.

Even before Monday’s suicide bombing, senior military officials had repeatedly threatened to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew troops and Jewish settlers last summer.

“I hope it won’t come to that,” the army’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, said in an interview published in Monday’s editions of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. “But the moment we decide the time has come for a ground operation, we will do it.”

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Military sources said, however, that an incursion into Gaza was unlikely to be carried out in response to the Tel Aviv bombing.

The suicide bombing came as Israel has been enjoying a strong revival of its tourism industry, fueled by hopes that the worst of the last 5 1/2 years’ violence might be over. During Easter weekend, Jerusalem’s walled Old City was packed with Christian pilgrims and Passover tourists.

“We came because we thought it had become safe here again,” said Rosario Ramos, a pilgrim from the Philippines who was making her way up the Via Dolorosa with her tour group. “But maybe we were wrong.”

Times staff writer Laura King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Vita Bekker from Tel Aviv. Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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