A nail-packed bomb ripped through a crowded sidewalk cafe Friday, killing four people including the Muslim suicide bomber, wounding 46 and plunging the Israeli-Palestinian peace process into crisis.
An anonymous caller told the police that the militant Islamic movement Hamas was behind the attack, but there was no immediate corroboration from either Palestinian or Israeli sources.
The bombing broke a yearlong lull in suicide attacks, but the political backdrop was far different this time. If last year’s series of attacks threatened a political process that had been in high gear, Friday’s bombing came at a low point in the stormy relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians, and on a day of sharp clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in Hebron and Bethlehem.
The bombing left many on both sides wondering whether the faltering Mideast peace process - already at a standstill because of the controversy over Israeli construction in east Jerusalem - had also been fatally wounded by the blast.
Netanyahu put the blame for the bombing squarely on Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. “Of course we consider them responsible,” Netanyahu said, recalling that earlier in the week he had accused the Palestinian leadership of signaling a “green light” to terrorist organizations to resume attacks on Israel.
Arafat’s spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, angrily rejected the prime minister’s charge. “It’s a shame that the Israeli prime minister lies in front of his people and holds President Arafat responsible,” he said. “The person ultimately responsible for this painful deed is Netanyahu himself, who did not listen to the advice of the international community and led us all to this position and to this hopeless atmosphere that resulted in the loss of innocent lives.”
In Helsinki for a summit with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, President Clinton defended Arafat.
“There must be absolutely no doubt in the minds of the friends or of the enemies of peace,” the president said, “that the Palestinian Authority is unalterably opposed to terror and unalterably committed to pre-empting and preventing such acts. This is essential to negotiating a meaningful and lasting peace.”
Like Israel’s last explosion, on March 4, 1996, Friday’s came on the Jewish holiday of Purim, when children walk the streets in fanciful costumes.
The enormous blast - apparently detonated by Musa Abdel Qader Abu Diya, 28, a Palestinian militant from the village of Surif, near Hebron, who also was killed in the explosion - upended tables and umbrellas, smashed chairs to bits, shattered windows and knocked customers to the ground. A baby carriage was overturned, and a heavy rain of black ash descended for a long while afterward.
A 9-year-old girl dressed as Pippi Longstocking for the upcoming Purim holiday was among the injured, as was an old woman in a wheelchair, who was bleeding profusely. A 6-month-old girl went unclaimed for hours after the bombing, presumably because her mother was among the dead or injured.
“I saw a flash and heard a noise and the glass began to pop from the windows,” said Gal Ben-Tzur, the bartender. “I saw a little baby who was alive. I saw two dead people and two women who were burned - one of them didn’t have a hand. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what to do.”
Arafat telephoned President Ezer Weizman - but not Netanyahu - to offer his condolences.
As after past bombing attacks, the Israeli Army immediately clamped restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel proper. Aides to Netanyahu said the government would have to “carefully reassess the course of action” it should take, but gave no indication what the prime minister might do.
The onset of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown halted the public discussion, leaving any further announcements until this evening. The enforced cooling-off period raised some hope that after weeks of confrontations and tension, the new week would offer a new start.
“When we sober up on Sunday, and I hope there will be no further attacks over the weekend, the peace process will continue, and the first withdrawal will go through,” said the Israeli interior minister, Avigdor Kahalani. “They may have satisfied themselves. I doubt it, but maybe they have.”
The explosion was a continuation of the aftermath of two Israeli government decisions - first to build the housing project for Jews in East Jerusalem, and next to limit a scheduled withdrawal in the West Bank to 9 percent of territory - that infuriated the Palestinians and crushed whatever marginal trust Arafat still had in Netanyahu’s intentions.
Israeli security officials warned from the outset that the decisions could lead to violence, and all security forces have been on high alert.
The tensions increased when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls in the Jordan Valley on March 13, killing seven. That calamity led to an extraordinary visit to Israel by King Hussein of Jordan to pay personal condolences to the families.
While with the king, Netanyahu introduced what he described as a new initiative to restore the negotiating momentum, proposing to set aside interim steps and move directly to negotiations on a final settlement, with the intention of reaching one in six months.
That offer was promptly rejected by the Palestinians as a “gimmick” and an attempt to sidestep Israel’s obligations, including further withdrawals from the West Bank, before a final settlement was reached. “Does he think I’m stupid?” Arafat said in a speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza. “This type of scheme and trickery simply will not work.”
At the same time, Netanyahu claimed that his intelligence services had learned that Arafat had given a “green light” to Islamic militants of Hamas and Islamic Holy War to resume attacks on Israel. The claim, coming in the heat of international denunciations of Israel over the Har Homa project, was met with skepticism in the United States and flatly denied by Arafat.
Friday, Netanyahu pointed to the bombing as proof of his claim, though he still gave no further details. But he also backtracked somewhat on the charge, saying the signal was an indirect one.
“The security agencies said two days ago in the clearest possible way that the terror groups Hamas and Islamic Holy War and other organizations understood that they had received a green light from the Palestinian Authority and its leader to carry out terror attacks of the kind that was carried out today,” he said. “The Palestinian Authority did not take any step to dispel this understanding and indeed this crime was committed in the middle of Tel Aviv.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: U.S. STANDS BY ISRAEL For the second time in two weeks, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for plans to build a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Friday’s vote - against Arab demands that Israel stop building the 6,500-unit Har Homa housing area - reinforced American isolation within the United Nations on the contentious issue.