Timing an issue in Tel Aviv hit

Suicide attack was the first since Arafat's hospitalization.

Ilan Moscovsky was heading out of his apartment to buy vegetables in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market Monday at the moment a 16-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself.

The explosion killed at least threeIsraelis and wounded 32. "I heard the boom," says Mr. Moscovsky. "I saw a yellow cloud and I fell to the floor. There was blood everywhere, I don't want to get into what it looked like. It was sad, shocking."

It was indeed shocking, but not unusually so. It was the 116th such attack Israelis have faced over the past four years, with a fatality toll of 493. What was different about this attack, however, was its timing.

It was the first suicide bombing since ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was rushed to a French military hospital Friday. And it's now fueling speculation as to whether it carried a message of defiance and resolve in the face of Arafat's hospitalization to Israel and the two men holding power temporarily, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and PLO Executive Committee Secretary-General Mahmoud Abbas. The attack was claimed by the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Hani Masri, an analyst in Ramallah, says the carnage is a signal to Israel and to the Palestinian public and factions. "The timing of the operation sends a message to the Israeli people that the sickness of Arafat will not mean the end of the intifada and the resistance," he says. It conveys to Palestinians, in Masri's view, "to continue the resistance as a source of unity rather than become involved in internal struggle" because of Arafat's illness and possible death.

Other analysts, however, argued that there was no connection with Arafat's illness or whereabouts. "The likelihood of a connection is very, very low," says Shalom Harari, an analyst at the International Policy Institution for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. "From what I know, the Palestinians are trying to carry out such attacks all the time, but often they don't succeed. There are about 40 to 50 warnings of attacks every day."

Mr. Harari says he will be looking to see if Arafat's absence has any impact on the way Palestinians react to the bombing. "I would like to see if [Secretary-Genera] Abbas calls a meeting of the PLO executive committee over this, but I don't have great expectations."

In Paris, Arafat condemned the bombing and "appealed to all the Palestinian factions to commit to avoid harming all Israeli civilians and appealed to Sharon to take similar initiatives," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Arafat's spokesman. Arafat was undergoing a fourth day of emergency treatment, with no diagnosis or prognosis announced yet.

Palestinian Communication Minister Azzam Ahmed says "the style and timing of this operation do not serve the Palestinian people." In his view, the bombing is not related to Arafat's illness. Rather, he says, Palestinian efforts to hold a dialogue with all factions, including the PFLP, to reach a truce have not borne fruit, something he blames on "Israel's continued assassinations and aggressions against our people." More than 100 Palestinians died in an Israeli operation in Gaza last month after two Israeli toddlers were killed in a cross-border rocket attack. "Israel's policy gives the Palestinian factions motives and excuses to react to its aggression, causing the eventual embarrassment of everyone," Ahmed says.

Rabbah Mahaneh, a PFLP leader in Gaza, says the attack was meant to show all Israelis that they are vulnerable. "Every Israeli can be targeted because of the behavior of the Sharon government."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel "will not stop its war against terror." He restated his commitment to withdraw from Gaza without negotiations with the Palestinians. "I'm not changing my policy until there are changes in the Palestinian administration and it stops its incitement and terror," he said.

But at the Carmel Market Monday, a protester held up a sign saying that the fatalities were "victims of the disengagement plan."

"The disengagement project weakens and sparks off terrorist attacks," says Sarah Tiktinsky, who held the sign. An argument erupted around her, with most bystanders saying they oppose the disengagement. "Whatever we do, the Arab remains an Arab," says Solomon Zafrir, a Likud party activist. "What he has in mind is to destroy our country."

But David Rafael-Sharf, a businessman, says: "This attack has nothing to do with the disengagement. We have to leave Gaza as soon as possible. We are a bone in the throat of the Arabs there. We have to reach a compromise." His comments were drowned out by heckling.

News agencies contributed to this report.

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