NETANYA, Israel (AP) – A suicide bomber burst into a hotel dining room and blew himself up yesterday just as Israelis dressed in their holiday best were sitting down to a Seder meal celebrating the Jewish Passover. At least 19 Israelis were killed and more than 120 wounded.

Paul Wong
Relatives of Palestinian gunman Wadah El Batesh carry his body draped in the Jihad flag during his funeral yesterday in Jabalya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip. He was killed after infiltrating at the Kissufim border crossing with Israel. (AP PHOTO)

The explosion tore through the ground floor of the Park Hotel in this northern coastal resort, blowing out walls and windows and overturning tables and chairs. Bits of rubble and wires dangled from the ceiling. In the chaos, one table remained standing, covered by a white cloth and with the elaborate Seder place settings still in place.

“Suddenly, it was hell,” said one of the guests, Nechama Donenhirsch. “There was the smell of smoke and dust in my mouth and a ringing in my ears.”

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for what Israeli government spokesman Gideon Meir called a “Passover massacre.” The bomber, a 25-year-old Palestinian, had worked in Netanya hotels in the past.

The bombing in Netanya threatened to derail the latest U.S. truce mission, just hours after President Bush said his envoy to the region had made some progress. In later comments, Bush said “this callous, this cold-blooded killing, it must stop.”

Israel, which had reluctantly accepted the latest U.S. cease-fire proposals, said it would have to reassess its policy and held Arafat responsible for the bombing. Police Minister Uzi Landau called for retaliation, saying the Palestinian Authority must be destroyed.

The Palestinian Authority said it “strongly condemned” the bombing, and that it would take tough measures against those involved. Palestinian security sources said Arafat ordered the arrests of four key militants in the West Bank.

The bombing came just hours after Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah presented a new peace initiative at the Arab summit in Beirut, offering Israel normal relations with the Arab world in exchange for a complete withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.

Arafat, who remains confined to the West Bank by Israel, embraced the initiative in a televised speech, and said he hoped it would be adopted by the summit.

Israeli officials responded guardedly, saying the Saudi plan was too vague and somewhat weakened the idea of “normalization” initially floated by Abdullah. The prince’s last-minute addition – a demand that Israel recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees – is “totally unacceptable,” said Danny Ayalon, a Sharon adviser.

Earlier reports said 16 Israelis were killed, but Israeli radio said later that the figure had climbed to 19. The injury toll rose to more than 120, including more than two dozens who were in serious condition. It was one of the worst suicide bombings in the past 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

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