Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short his trip to the United States and blamed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for last night's suicide bombing in a Rishon Letzion billiards club. Fifteen Israelis were killed and 53 injured, fifteen of them seriously, when a Palestinian detonated a suitcase bomb in the crowded hall.
The bombing occurred shortly after 11 p.m., as Sharon was meeting with President George W. Bush in the White House. Sharon said the attack was "proof of the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority" and placed the blame squarely on Arafat's shoulders. "He who calls for a million martyrs - is guilty," Sharon declared, referring to the Palestinian leader's frequently repeated slogan suggesting that Palestinians give their lives in order to "liberate" Jerusalem.
While declaring that Operation Defensive Shield had achieved much success in fighting Palestinian terrorism, Sharon said, "The battle is not done." Sharon is due to arrive in Israel late Wednesday night and will immediately convene the cabinet. Army Radio reported that Sharon was weighing a "harsh response" to the Rishon Letzion attack, which could include a move to expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories.
"It could be that in the end there will be no choice and we will have to expel Arafat," said Education Minister Limor Livnat, who was in Washington with Sharon.
The Rishon Letzion bombing was the first suicide attack since the end of Operation Defensive Shield, as well as the first terrorist attack in the city during the Intifada. Police officials speculate that the terrorist came from the Gaza Strip. IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ron Kitrey said the army was prepared to act, if the government ordered a renewed military offensive following the bombing.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday that if terror resumed, the IDF might be called upon to launch military offensives on a wider scale than Operation Defensive Shield. "Every single night we arrest a suicide bomber on his way to an attack. We no longer trust the Palestinian Authority to stop terror," he said.
The Palestinian Authority issued a swift condemnation of the Rishon Letzion attack. "[We] will take every possible action if it proves that those behind this attack had anything to do, or were coming from, Palestinian areas," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "We don't condone the killing of civilians, either Palestinians or Israelis."
The Al Manar television station in Lebanon said it received a claim of responsibility for the attack from Hamas, though Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar would not confirm it. Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantissi said, "The Palestinians love suicide bombings more than the Israelis love life," Army Radio reported. Unnamed Palestinian officials reportedly were furious with the Hamas for timing the attack at the exact hour when Sharon was meeting with Bush.
Attack took place in illegal gambling club
The suicide bombing occurred on the third floor of a building in Rishon Letzion's new industrial area. No security guard was posted outside the Sheffield Club, despite new regulations requiring places of entertainment to provide security arrangements. City officials said the club was operating illegally, due to the building's use of the Pal-Kal floor-ceiling system, the faulty building method that was responsible for the collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem in May 2001. Police officials said that illegal gambling regularly took place in the club, and that it was operating without a permit.
"We were playing the slot machines, and all of a sudden there was a huge explosion that blew out the ceiling," said one Rishon Letzion resident. "Everything went dark, and there was a lot of dust. People started screaming, and whoever could, escaped for their lives. I saw a lot of people who couldn't escape, and they were buried under the rubble."
Eyewitnesses reported that due to the force of the blast, many people were blown out of the club's windows and landed on top of vehicles in the parking lot three floors below.
Due to the extensive destruction in the building, rescue workers could not determine at first how many people had been killed. The names of some of the victims have already been released:
Pnina Hikri, 69, from Tel Aviv Rasan Sharuk, 60, from Holon Shoshana Magamri, 51, from Tel Aviv Anat Trampatrosh, 36, from Ashdod Haim Rafael, 64, from Tel Aviv
Ellis Shuman Israelinsider