TEL AVIV (AP) â€” A Palestinian suicide bomber struck a packed fast-food restaurant in Tel Aviv during the Jewish holiday of Passover on Monday, killing nine people and wounding dozens in the deadliest bombing in more than a year. The Palestinian’s new Hamas-led government defended the attack 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 â€” even though Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility â€” and Israel’s security chiefs met Monday. They were expected to recommend stepped-up operations against Islamic Jihad, security officials said. Israeli officials were to decide on a response in meetings Tuesday.
The attack occurred 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.
The bombing was the first inside Israel since the Hamas Cabinet took office two-and-a-half weeks ago. Fighters from Islamic Jihad, which has close ties to Israel’s archenemy 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. Fighters have fired barrages of homemade rockets at Israel and Tel Aviv has responded with artillery fire. A 17-year-old Palestinian teenager in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya was killed Monday in the shelling, Palestinian officials said.
The suicide bombing occurred about 1:40pm when the attacker, carrying a bag stuffed with 4.5 kilogrammes 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 vacation during the weeklong Passover holiday.
A guard outside was checking the bomber’s bag when the bomb exploded, police and witnesses said.
“Suddenly there was a boom. The whole restaurant flew in the air,” said Azi Otmazgo, 35, who was inside and was wounded on his hands, foot and head.
The bomb, laced with nails and other projectiles, shattered car windshields, 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.
It killed a woman standing near her husband and children, who were lightly wounded, said Israel Yaakov, another witness.
“The father was traumatised, he went into shock. He ran to the children to gather them up and the children were screaming: ‘Mom! Mom!’ and she wasn’t answering, she was dead already,” he said.
The wounded were treated on sidewalks. One man was lying on his side, his shirt pushed up and his back covered by bandages. A bleeding woman was wheeled away on a stretcher.
“Everything was a mess. Everything was blood. I saw half a body â€” I don’t know if it was the terrorist or the guard,” said a witness who gave his name as Bentzi.
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 August 31, 2004, killed 16 people. It was the second major Passover bombing in four years. A 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.
Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in recent years, has largely observed a 16-month truce with Israel. Yet in a sharp departure from previous government’s immediate condemnations of such attacks, Hamas leaders defended the bombing.
“We think that this operation… is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people,” said Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Hamas-led interior ministry.
The moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fateh Party, condemned the bombing, and said he had ordered Palestinian security forces to prevent future attacks. Abbas is currently in a power struggle with Hamas and it remains unclear who is ultimately in charge of the Palestinians’ fractious security forces.
“These kinds of attacks harm the Palestinian interest, and we as an authority and government must move to stop it,” he said. “We will not stop pursuing anyone who carries out such attacks.” Israeli President Moshe Katsav appealed to the Palestinians to reject violence.
“I call on the Palestinians not to show weakness of spirit in the struggle for peace. We want to believe that the political path of the Hamas government is not the path of the Palestinians,” he said.
Islamic Jihad identified Monday’s 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. “There are many other bombers on the way,” he said.
Islamic Jihad was behind eight of the nine suicide bombings carried out since a February 8, 2005, truce declaration.
The group’s exiled leader, Ramadan Shallah, said in a statement Sunday that its fighters was making “nonstop efforts” to infiltrate suicide bombers into Israel.
“The nonstop crackdown against our resistance might limit this effort, but it’s not going to stop it,” he said in a statement posted on the group’s website. Shallah made his comments at an anti-Israel conference in Iran.
The attack â€” and the Hamas refusal to condemn it â€” complicated the group’s efforts to raise money for the bankrupt Palestinian treasury. The Hamas government is already two weeks behind on paying March salaries for the government’s 140,000 workers, causing growing anger in the streets.
The US and European Union cut off aid to the government because Hamas refused their demands to renounce violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist. Israel also stopped transferring tens of millions of tax dollars it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf every month.
Hamas said it would turn to Muslim countries to make up its budget shortfall. Iran said Sunday it would give the Palestinian Authority $50 million and the Gulf state of Qatar pledged the same amount Monday.