Palestinian suicide bomber kills nine in Tel Aviv

A Palestinian suicide bomber struck a packed fast-food restaurant in Tel Aviv during the Jewish holiday of Passover on Monday, killing nine people and wounding dozens in the deadliest bombing in more than a year. The Palestinian's new Hamas government defended the attack as a legitimate response to Israeli "aggression," setting the stage for possible harsh Israeli reprisals and endangering Hamas' urgent efforts to get desperately needed international aid. Israel said it held Hamas responsible for the attack even though another group claimed responsibility and Israel's security chiefs were to meet later Monday to discuss what action to take. Security officials said a ground operation in Gaza was not being considered.

The attack occurred just two hours before Israel's newly elected parliament was sworn into office, and Prime Minister designate Ehud Olmert said Israel would react to the bombing with appropriate means. The European Union, which has cut off aid to the Hamas-led government, condemned the attack and called for restraint by both sides.

U.S. Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice called Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to condemn the attack, according to foreign ministry officials. Islamic Jihad, which has close ties to Israel's archenemy, Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack, the first inside Israel since the Hamas Cabinet took office 2 1/2 weeks ago.

The blast occurred about 1:40 p.m. when the bomber, carrying a bag stuffed with 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of explosives, approached the "The Mayor's Felafel" restaurant in a busy neighborhood near Tel Aviv's central bus station. The restaurant, which had been the target of a January bombing, was packed with Israelis on vacation during the weeklong Passover holiday.

A guard outside was checking the bomber's bag when the bomb exploded, police and witnesses said. "Suddenly there was a boom. The whole restaurant flew in the air," said Azi Otmazgo, 35, who was inside and was wounded on his hands, foot and head.

The bomb, laced with nails and other projectiles, shattered car windshields, smashed windows of nearby buildings and blew away the restaurant's sign. Glass shards and blood splattered the ground. Police said the guard was torn in half by the blast.

It killed a woman standing near her husband and children, who were lightly wounded, said Israel Yaakov, another witness. "The father was traumatized, he went into shock. He ran to the children to gather them up and the children were screaming, 'Mom! Mom!' and she wasn't answering, she was dead already," he said.

The wounded were treated on sidewalks. One man was lying on his side, his shirt pushed up and his back covered by bandages. A bleeding woman was wheeled away on a stretcher. "Everything was a mess. Everything was blood. I saw half a body I don't know if it was the terrorist or the guard," said a witness who gave his name as Bentzi.

Police said nine civilians and the bomber were killed and dozens of others were wounded. The attack was the deadliest since a double suicide bombing on two buses in the southern city of Beersheba Aug. 31, 2004, killed 16 people. It was the second major Passover bombing in four years. An 2002 attack at a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya killed 29 people and triggered a major Israeli military offensive.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said the government held Hamas responsible for the attack because it is "giving support to all the other terrorist organizations." "From our point of view it doesn't matter if it comes from Al Aqsa, Islamic Jihad or Hamas. They all come out of the same school of terrorism led by Hamas," Meir said.

Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in recent years, has largely observed a 16-month truce with Israel. Yet in a sharp departure from previous government's immediate condemnations of such attacks, Hamas leaders defended the bombing. "We think that this operation ... is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people," said Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry.

The moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah party, condemned the bombing, and said he had ordered Palestinian security forces to prevent future attacks. Abbas is currently in a power struggle with Abbas and it remains unclear who is ultimately in charge of the Palestinians' fractious security forces.

"These kinds of attacks harm the Palestinian interest, and we as an authority and government must move to stop it," he said. "We will not stop pursuing anyone who carries out such attacks." Israeli President Moshe Katsav appealed to the Palestinians to reject violence.

"I call on the Palestinians not to show weakness of spirit in the struggle for peace. We want to believe that the political path of the Hamas government is not the path of the Palestinians," he said. Islamic Jihad identified Monday's bomber as Samer Hammad from a village outside the northern West Bank town of Jenin.

In a video released by the group, Hammad said the bombing was dedicated to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. "There are many other bombers on the way," he said. Islamic Jihad was behind eight of the nine suicide bombings carried out since a Feb. 8, 2005, truce declaration.

The group's exiled leader, Ramadan Shallah, said in a statement Sunday that its militants was making "nonstop efforts" to infiltrate suicide bombers into Israel. "The nonstop crackdown against our resistance might limit this effort, but it's not going to stop it," he said in a statement posted on the group's Web site. Shallah made his comments at an anti-Israel conference in Iran.

The attack and the Hamas refusal to condemn it complicated the group's efforts to raise money for the bankrupt Palestinian treasury. The Hamas government is already two weeks behind on paying March salaries for the government's 140,000 workers, causing growing anger in the streets.

The U.S. and European Union cut off aid to the government because Hamas refused their demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel also stopped transferring tens of millions of tax dollars it collects on the Palestinians' behalf every month.

Governments across Europe condemned the bombing and some criticized Hamas' refusal to do the same. Germany called on the Hamas-led government to disarm terrorist groups. "It would be a fatal start for the new government if it did not clearly and energetically act against acts of terror," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, condemned the attack and called "on all parties to prevent any new descent into a senseless spiral of violence." Hamas said it would turn to Muslim countries to make up its budget shortfall. Iran said Sunday it would give the Palestinian Authority US$50 million and the Gulf state of Qatar pledged the same amount Monday, reports the AP.

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