TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Seconds apart, two Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowded part of Tel Aviv where foreign workers live, killing 23 bystanders, wounding more than 100 and ending a lull in such attacks just three weeks before Israeli elections.
Israeli helicopters firing missiles blasted metal workshops in Gaza early today as Israel’s leadership met to consider how to respond to the deadliest single Palestinian attack since March, when a suicide bomber killed 29 Israelis at a Passover meal.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack, naming the bombers as two young men from the West Bank city of Nablus. There was also a less specific claim from the Islamic Jihad.
In Washington, President Bush called the attack “a despicable act of murder” and said Secretary of State Colin Powell had called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to express America’s condolences.
“Today terrorists struck again in Israel, murdering and injuring scores of civilians in Tel Aviv,” Bush said in a prepared statement last night. “I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms.”
It was the first suicide attack inside Israel since Nov. 21, when a bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 11 passengers. In the past, such bombings have triggered large-scale Israeli incursions in the West Bank, and hard-liners in Israel’s Cabinet have called for expelling Arafat, but circumstances weighed against such a response.
Sharon was quick to blame Arafat, though without mentioning his name. “All attempts to reach a cease-fire, even today, are failing due to the Palestinian leadership that continues to support, fund and initiate terror,” Sharon told a public gathering in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority issued a statement, saying it “strongly condemns and fully rejects all crimes against civilians and the idea of revenge.” The statement called for international intervention to help restore calm.
Anticipating Israel’s reaction, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said, “We cannot accept the Israeli assigning blame on President Arafat or the Palestinian Authority. This is a broken record.”
In the past, waves of Palestinian terrorism have helped hard-line parties in Israeli elections. With voting set for Jan. 28, Sharon’s Likud Party, hit hard by a corruption scandal, stood to gain. However, the proximity of the election also worked against a tough response, which would be seen by opponents as electioneering.
Also, Israel was picking up clear indications from the United States to keep the Mideast conflict on a low burn while the U.S. prepares for a possible attack on Iraq.
That factor was also working against expulsion of Arafat from the West Bank, though a significant number of key Israeli Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, are pressing for deportation.
Sharon, who has had a decades-long feud with Arafat and has effectively confined him to his West Bank headquarters for a year, has resisted the pressure for political reasons, not because he opposes deporting Arafat in principle.
The twin attack was also likely to harm Egyptian efforts to secure a declaration from Fatah and the militant Islamic groups for an end to suicide bombings as a step toward a truce in 27 months of violence. Egyptian officials had said another meeting was due this week; that was now in doubt.
Two bombers set off explosives strapped to their bodies around 6:30 p.m. yesterday in a pedestrian area filled with working class shops and restaurants near Tel Aviv’s old, defunct central bus station. The neighborhood is inhabited largely by foreign workers from Romania, Thailand, China, Ghana and other places.
One of the bombers blew himself up near a fast food restaurant called “McChina.” The explosion ripped through the outdoor restaurant, overturning wooden picnic tables and showering glass on the sidewalk. The other bomber hit a commercial area nearby.
Many of the victims were foreign workers. Several of the wounded were treated on the sidewalk.
A witness who only gave his first name, Tomer, told TV’s Channel Two that he ran to help the wounded. “I saw a man without a leg. I saw horrible things, people without legs, without arms. I saw fingers,” he said.
Rescue workers said identification of the victims was still incomplete, but they said most of the dead were foreigners.
Hours later, Israeli attack helicopters fired at least four missiles at metal workshops in Gaza City, witnesses said. Eight people were lightly injured. The Israeli military said the workshops were used for making weapons, including mortars and rockets.
In Rafah, on the Gaza-Egypt border, Israeli forces destroyed a house belonging to an Islamic Jihad leader, Palestinians said.