April 20, 2006
Israel Holds Off on Bombing Response
Israeli officials have blamed the Palestinian government of Hamas for the Tel Aviv suicide bombing this week that killed nine and injured scores of others. However, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stopped short of ordering an offensive against the Palestinian Authority.
Instead, Israel will revoke the residency status of Hamas officials living in eastern Jerusalem and crack down on the smuggling of Palestinians into the Jewish state. Political sources said Olmert, who is trying to build a coalition government, held off on serious retaliation for fear of undermining U.S.-led efforts to isolate the Hamas government.
Witnesses and rescue workers reported a harrowing site at Mayor's Falafel, near Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station, where a young Palestinian detonated his bomb packed with metal and nails on Monday.
It was the second time the restaurant has been hit in four months, and both times, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. This time, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an affiliate of the Fatah movement, also claimed responsibility.
More than 40 people were injured in attack, several of them critically, rescue officials said. Guy Sadeh was among the first at the scene, passing by on his way to pick up new business cards. He helped treat and calm the injured.
"I saw things no one should see," Sadeh, 36, said as he lay on a hospital gurney while being treated for cuts on his right foot. His khaki pants were splattered with blood.
The blue awning of the restaurant sagged under its shattered glass sign. Red police tape was quickly strung up. The force of the blast sent debris flying 30 feet. Passersby wrangled for a closer look, and some took photos with cellphone cameras.
Ultra-Orthodox men from the ZAKA rescue service, wearing plastic gloves, black suits and orange vests, picked through the debris searching for body parts and pieces of flesh to be buried with the bodies. One ZAKA member climbed a ladder to sponge off a nearby pole.
The whines of ambulance sirens were joined by the alarms of cars parked in front of the restaurant. Police forensic teams wearing white jumpsuits sifted through the twisted mangle of upturned tables and chairs in search of clues about the powerful bomb.
The bombing shattered the calm of the Passover holiday, a time when schoolchildren are on break and Israeli families visit relatives and friends, hosting barbecues in parks and by the sea. The attack came just hours ahead of a swearing-in ceremony for the new Knesset.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, but it was excused by the P.A.'s Hamas leadership, which deemed it a legitimate response to Israeli actions.
In Washington, President Bush called the attack "a despicable act of terrorism, for which no excuse or justification is possible." He added that the burden for preventing terrorist acts rests with the Palestinian Authority and noted that Hamas leaders defended the attack.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called the attack "senseless and totally unjustified." United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the Palestinian government must "take a clear public stand against such unjustifiable acts of terrorism."
The bombing marred a period of relative calm, during which some Palestinian groups have observed a self-declared cease-fire. But other factions are still trying to stage attacks, the Israeli government said this week.
Briefing the Cabinet on Tuesday, Yuval Diskin said 88 attempted suicide bombings had been prevented since the beginning of the year, around a dozen of them within an hour or two of the planned attack. "On occasion, we have found ourselves bringing in a terrorist every day," Diskin was quoted as telling Olmert and top Cabinet ministers who had convened to discuss a response to the suicide bombing.
Neveh Sha'anan, the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood where the attack took place, is a working-class area, home to many foreign workers. It has suffered six attacks since the intifada began in 2000. In January, a suicide bombing at the same falafel stand killed no one but the bomber. The stand's owners, three brothers, called the outcome a miracle and hired a security guard.
Rafi Ackler, 50, who owns a gift shop on the same block, said the bombing was bad for the country and bad for business.
"We were just beginning to recover from the other attack, when there was a drastic drop off in business. We just started breathing again and this happens," he said.
Benny Schor, 42, who owns a printing press around the corner, said he's too scared to eat out anymore.
"You never know when it is going to happen to you," he said.