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Attack tests Israeli response to Hamas

The militant group said Monday's bombing in Tel Aviv that killed at least nine was an act of self-defense.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 18, 2006



TEL AVIV

A Palestinian suicide bomber set off an explosion at a sidewalk sandwich bar here, killing at least nine bystanders in an attack that could figure as the first major test of Israel's response to terrorism since Hamas was elected to run the Palestinian government.

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Although Hamas has observed a year-long calm in violence during which suicide attacks have dropped sharply, the Islamic militants have said they won't prevent other groups from launching attacks. This latest strike is likely to force Israel to decide whether to increase its level of force in retaliating now that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is controlled by Hamas, which openly supports the militarized uprising.

"Israel's government will do what it needs to do to hit terrorists in any place," Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert said Monday.

The bomb went off shortly before 2 p.m., injuring about 65 and ripping through a crowd of lunchtime diners on a day many Israelis took off to celebrate the week-long holiday of Passover. The Middle Eastern greasy spoon was bombed in January but spared of fatalities.

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attack - the deadliest since Israel and the PA declared a truce in the violence 14 months ago - and released a videotape of the bomber, reportedly a West Bank teenager. The Iranian-funded militia has carried out eight of the nine bombings against Israeli targets since February 2005.

The attack highlighted the dissonance among the Palestinian leadership, as President Mahmoud Abbas denounced it while a spokesperson for the Hamas-controlled cabinet described the explosion as an act of self-defense in an interview with an Arab satellite TV channel, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported on its website.

"We've never encountered this situation before. Everyone, including the US, is playing this by ear," says Yossi Alpher, the editor of Bitterlemons.org, a Web-based opinion journal on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. "The whole doctrine of how you deal with a Muslim Brotherhood organization when it is elected democratically is an evolving one."

The attack came just hours before the inauguration of Israel's new parliament in Jerusalem, though the government is still in limbo as Mr. Olmert's Kadima party has yet to finish negotiations to set up his governing coalition. Israel's parliament, the Knesset, continued with the ceremony, but dampened the festivities because of the bombing.

"We hoped to celebrate this holiday of Israeli democracy in a slightly different way, but we're again forced to deal with murderous terrorism which is trying to hit in every place," Olmert said.

The bombing follows an escalation of attacks last week in and around the Gaza Strip, as Palestinian militants and Israel traded artillery and rocket fire. Hamas's interior minister has said that the government won't arrest militants planning attacks on Israel.

"Israeli occupation is responsible for the continuation of the hostilities," Hamas parliament member Sami Abu Zuhri said in a television interview. "Our people are in a situation of self-defense, and it's their right to use any means necessary to protect themselves."

The explosion blew out the windshield glass of parked cars nearby and left ceiling insulation inside the Middle Eastern sandwich bar dangling awkwardly by wires.

The restaurant was located at the entrance of Neve Shaanan, a pedestrian promenade with shops that cater to Israel's working class and tens of thousands of foreign laborers who live in the area. Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, the pedestrian area has been targeted several times.

The January explosion "was child's play compared to this. The force of the explosion lifted us," says Yakov Yisraeli, who witnessed the explosion from a nearby music store.

"There's nothing that prevents anyone from dropping off a bomber right across the street there. Our response to this needs to be more severe," he says.

Israeli police had been put on high alert for just this sort of attack during the Passover holiday. Just a few weeks ago, a Palestinian was arrested in a taxi minibus with an explosive, presumably en route to an attack inside Israel.

But yet Israeli police chief Moshe Karady said that the law enforcement officials had received no concrete warnings of an attack in Tel Aviv. The attack was another reminder for Israelis that the government's West Bank separation barrier isn't a foolproof defense against suicide bombers.

"Once the fence is finished and once the monitoring of the main highways is improved, we will be able to close [the West Bank] like the Gaza Strip," said Public Security minister Gideon Ezra in an interview with Israel Radio, "but we are still far from that."

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