Israel’s security chiefs have met to discuss the Jewish state’s response to a suicide bombing at a packed Tel Aviv fast-food restaurant during the Passover holiday that killed nine people and injured dozens.
The Palestinians’ new Hamas-led government defended yesterday’s attack, the deadliest bombing in more than a year, as a legitimate response to Israeli “aggression”, setting the stage for possible harsh Israeli reprisals and endangering Hamas’ urgent efforts to get desperately-needed international aid and acceptance.
Israel said it held Hamas responsible for the attack – even though Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility – and security chiefs were expected to recommend stepped-up operations against Jihad.
The attack happened just two hours before Israel’s newly-elected parliament was sworn into office and prime minister-designate Ehud Olmert said Israel would react to the bombing with appropriate means.
In an initial response, Israeli aircraft attacked an empty metal workshop in Gaza City last night, causing no injuries. The army said the workshop was used by the Popular Resistance Committees militant group to manufacture home-made rockets to launch at Israel.
The European Union condemned the suicide bombing, Russia called on the Palestinian Authority to stop future attacks on Israel and United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan called on the Palestinian government “to take a clear public stand” against such acts.
America warned of grave consequences for the Hamas-led government.
“Defence 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,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
The bombing was the first inside Israel since the Hamas Cabinet took office two and a half weeks ago. Militants from Islamic Jihad, which has close ties to Israel’s arch enemy Iran, celebrated the attack by handing out pastries on the streets of Gaza.
The attack came amid a sharp increase in fighting between Israel and the Palestinians across the Gaza border in recent days. Militants have fired barrages of home-made rockets at Israel and Israel has responded with artillery fire. A 17-year-old Palestinian teenager in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya was killed yesterday in the shelling, Palestinian officials said.
The suicide bombing happened at about 1.40pm when the attacker, carrying a bag stuffed with 10lbs of explosives, approached the The Mayor’s Felafel restaurant in a busy neighbourhood near Tel Aviv’s central bus station. The restaurant, which had been the target of a January bombing, was packed with Israelis on holiday during the week-long Passover festival.
A guard outside was checking the bomber’s bag when the bomb exploded, police and witnesses said.
The bomb, laced with nails and other projectiles, shattered car windscreens, smashed windows of nearby buildings and blew away the restaurant’s sign. Glass shards and blood splattered the ground. Police said the guard was torn in half by the blast.
Police said nine civilians and the bomber were killed and dozens of others were wounded.
The attack was the deadliest since a double suicide bombing on two buses in the southern city of Beersheba on August 31 2004, killed 16 people. It was the second major Passover bombing in four years. An 2002 attack at a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya killed 29 people and triggered a major Israeli military offensive.
Israel said it held Hamas responsible for the bombing. “Hamas’ constant preaching for the destruction of Israel serves as a catalyst for these attacks,” said David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman.
Moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah party, condemned the bombing and said he had ordered Palestinian security forces to prevent future attacks.
Islamic Jihad identified the bomber as Samer Hammad, from a village outside the northern West Bank town of Jenin. In a video released by the group, Hammad said the bombing was dedicated to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails..
Meanwhile, in a surprise editorial today, an Egyptian state-controlled newspaper praised the suicide attack, calling it an act of sacrifice and martyrdom.
Egypt has always taken pains to condemn violence by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it was exceptional for Al Gomhuria, one of the country’s three biggest newspapers, whose editor is effectively appointed by President Hosni Mubarak, to endorse yesterday’s attack.
“It is not required of the Palestinian people that they raise their hands in surrender, accept the daily Israeli attacks and watch waves of settlers occupy their land and build settlements,” the paper said.
“It is not required of the Palestinian people that they clap Israel and its allies while they mobilise the whole world to besiege the heroic (Palestinian) people ... because they have chosen Hamas.
“For all that, the sacrificial and martyrdom attack occurred in the heart of Tel Aviv, and there will be more later.”