A suicide bomb ripped through a crowded pizza restaurant in the heart of West Jerusalem yesterday, killing at least 15 people and wounding 92,opening a new and uncertain chapter in the 10-month-old Middle East confrontation.
It was the deadliest attack against Israelis since the June 1 suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco that killed 22 Israelis. That time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose what Israelis consider a restrained response. This time, that appears far less likely. The question is: How far will the Israelis go in retaliating?
Israeli analysts predict this bombing alone won't set off a wholesale invasion - though an intensification of strikes against Palestinian Authority (PA) targets is considered likely.
"It is really too early to say if this is a turning point," says Ephraim Inbar, of Bar-Illan University near Tel Aviv. "We are locked into a war of attrition that will continue for a long time."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer were to meet last night to draw up a list of Palestinian targets to strike in response to the attack, according to Agence France-Presse. Dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was not invited to the meeting, signaling a potentially tough Israeli response.
In the past, Israeli responses have come on the same day as bombings and taken the form of helicopter strikes.
Islamic Jihad, a small militant group that seeks Israel's replacement by an Islamic state, claimed the attack, but Israeli officials were quick to fault the PA for failing to take action despite repeated demands.
"The government will make the necessary decisions in order to defend our citizens," says Ra'anan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman. "We have every right to take action in order to defend our citizens."
The scope of Israel's response will have wide implications. Egypt and Jordan have repeatedly warned Israel against escalating military attacks, and the US is anxious to prevent the spread of the conflict in a way that would involve its moderate Arab allies. President Bush called on Arafat to take immediate and sustained action to prevent future attacks.
Palestinian Authority Minister of Information Yasser Abed-Rabbo said Israel had brought the bombing upon itself by assassinating 23 Palestinians - including women and children - since the start of last week. An Israeli attack in the West Bank city of Nablus Tuesday killed two senior leaders of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which Israel said was planning attacks, along with six other people, including two children. "Sharon provoked this. He waited for it, and he wanted it," Abed-Rabbo said.
The blast was certain to fuel calls on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for an even tougher approach to the intifada.
The attack transformed lunch hour downtown into a time of horror, panic, and shock. "I heard a bomb, took my gloves, and ran to the area and started to take care of the wounded," said Chaim Newman, a volunteer ambulance driver. "I saw a girl, she was about eleven, and I wanted to help her. Unfortunately, when I turned her over, she was dead."
Helen Boshkovitz, a Jerusalem resident who was shaken up by the explosion, said: "People are walking in the street and vomiting from the shock. This is what they have brought us to. They are embittering our lives. You don't know from where the next explosion will come."
Analysts, meanwhile, predict fresh military moves, but no war, at least not now. Joseph Alpher, former deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said: "If we get a spate of these bombings ... things could reach a critical mass in which no prime minister will be able to avoid a heavy reprisal."
Leaders of Sharon's governing coalition have opposed a major military campaign and had been calling in recent days for a move toward renewed diplomacy with the PA. The bombing seems likely to undermine their position, at least during the next few days.
"I predict we will see more of the same, but on a larger-scale," says Mr. Inbar, regarding Israel's response. "Targeted attacks will definitely continue, but we may also go for government installations, military installations, and communications infrastructure."