In attacks timed just seconds apart, three suicide bombers blew themselves up Thursday in an outdoor mall crowded with shoppers and tourists, killing four other people, wounding about 190 and striking yet another blow at the tottering Middle East peace process.
The synchronized explosions - the second such attack in five weeks - transformed Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street from a casual, end-of-summer scene of bustling cafes and souvenir shops to one of carnage and fear. Sobbing teenagers clung to one another in the popular pedestrian mall, and frantic parents searched desperately for missing children.
“We were having a drink and were about to say cheers,” said Abie Mendelsohn, 18, of Los Angeles, who was slightly injured. “The next thing I knew I was on the floor. … I saw people screaming. I saw blood everywhere.”
In calls to Western news agencies here, the militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, as it had following twin suicide bombings in Jerusalem’s nearby central produce market July 30 that left 17 dead and scores injured.
Speaking to reporters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat quickly condemned the attacks and said he believed that the suicide bombers came from outside both Israel and the Palestinian-ruled territories.
Israel sealed its borders almost immediately after the explosions, ordering Palestinian workers inside Israel to return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and preventing all from entering Israel. Similar restrictions that followed the July 30 bombings had just been eased, although most Palestinians were still prohibited from crossing into Israel.
Israel also announced it had refused to attend a regular security coordination meeting with Palestinian and U.S. officials.
The attack came just days before U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is scheduled to begin a high-profile mission here next week aimed at breathing life into the failing, 4-year-old Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
President Clinton interrupted a holiday on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to condemn the latest attack but said it will not disrupt Albright’s visit, her first to the troubled region.
Police said Thursday’s bombs, riddled with nails to increase injuries, each contained about 5 pounds of explosives, relatively small by the painfully familiar standards of Jerusalem attacks. Most of those wounded in the blasts suffered light to moderate injuries, hospital officials said.
The blasts were set off by three men, one of whom may have been disguised as an elderly man and another as a woman, Israel Radio reported. Just after 3 p.m., the three stood amid the crowds of shoppers along the tree-lined walkway and detonated their explosives-laden bags in quick succession.
The bombings left a 100-yard stretch of the trendy street a mass of twisted metal, shattered glass and toppled sun umbrellas.
Police said later that they had received warnings about attacks in central Jerusalem and had increased their presence along the Ben Yehuda mall and other public gathering points.
Three hours after the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Arafat, again accusing the Palestinian leader of failing to crack down on terrorist groups opposed to the peace process.
“We are not prepared to go on like this,” a visibly angry Netanyahu said after visiting some of the bombing victims in a Jerusalem hospital. “We’ll consider all the steps we should take to secure the safety of the citizens of Israel, but let it be clear that from this moment onwards, our path will be a different path.”
Netanyahu also castigated Arafat for his recent, widely publicized embrace of a Hamas political leader, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, saying the peace process cannot exist side by side with such actions.
After the July bombings, the Israeli government threatened to reenter areas turned over to the Palestinians in the peace deals if Arafat did not take tougher action against militant groups. So far, Israel has not acted on that threat.
Late Thursday, the government also announced that it was reinstituting internal blockades that keep Palestinians from moving between their towns and villages in the West Bank. A monthlong closure of Bethlehem was lifted only last week.
Arafat and other Palestinian officials blamed tough Israeli actions - including a prolonged closure of the Palestinian areas after the July explosions - for creating an atmosphere that contributes to extremism and violence.
“This (attack) is tragic, but we must put it in perspective,” said Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, the minister for higher education in Arafat’s Cabinet. “Keeping the peace process and the Palestinian people as hostages, through the closure, land confiscations and not implementing the peace agreements, (does) lead to violence.”
Many of Thursday’s wounded were taken to Shaarei Tzedek hospital, where Mendelsohn spoke to reporters as he was wheeled inside. His head bandaged and face marked by cuts and scratches, the Jewish seminary student said he was sharing a drink with friends when he heard “three loud bangs.” He flew through the air and landed about 15 feet away, he said.
Five minutes before the first explosion, Greg Salzman, 25, a chiropractor originally from New Brunswick, N.J., had moved from one side of a vegetarian restaurant to the other to escape the glare of the sun. The move, which took him further from the bomber, probably spared him serious injuries, he said.
“I’m blessed,” he said, his face swollen and cut and his legs and arms covered with first- and second-degree burns. “I feel very lucky.”
In the hallway nearby, Gilles Amsellem, 22, lay on a hospital trolley, talking on a cell phone to his anxious mother in France. “Calm down, I’m OK,” he urged her, holding the phone with a bandaged right hand. “I just came out of the operating room and they say I’m OK.”