A suicide bomber struck Monday morning at a small bakery in the usually serene city, killing three Israelis when he detonated his explosives belt in a residential area. It was the first suicide bombing in Israel's southernmost city, built on the edge of the Red Sea with views of Jordan and Egypt.
"It was awful -- there was smoke, pieces of flesh all over the place," Benny Mazgini, 45, who ran to the bakery from a building across the street, told Israel Radio.
The scene was a foreign one in Eilat, whose luxury hotels, restaurants and nightclubs have made it popular with foreign tourists and Israelis.
"It's without a doubt a terrible incident that the town of Eilat is not accustomed to," Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi said. "The thought that infiltrators could enter Eilat alive and disrupt the running of the town is very worrying."
Israel decided not to resume assassinating Palestinian terrorist leaders in the wake of the bombing. Security sources said Tuesday that Defense Minister Amir Peretz turned down a request by top military brass to permit targeting of heads of Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigades, which both claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The Defense Ministry declined comment, but Peretz hinted that Israel wanted more time to decide on its response.
"The initiative will be ours, and we have no intention of relaying what we plan to do," he told reporters during a tour of Eilat. "We will examine all means available for tackling the conduits, the current threats and the infrastructures" of the terrorist groups, he said.
The suicide bombing came after a relatively long stretch of calm inside Israel, and was the first such successful attack in nine months. Other attempted attacks have been foiled by Israeli security forces.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a Kadima faction meeting that for "a long time, Israel [had] enjoyed the illusion of quiet."
Olmert stressed that in recent months, Israel had prevented numerous terror attacks.
The prime minster extended his condolences to the victims' families and said that he had spoken with Halevi.
"I believe Eilat will overcome this blow and remain a happy city," Olmert said. Among the most worried in Eilat are those who work in its tourism industry, the basis of the city's livelihood. Eilat was just beginning to recover from the wave of tourist cancellations that followed Israel's war with Lebanon last summer, but some fear the attack could again scare off foreigners.
Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokeswoman to the foreign press, tried to assuage fears. "In 2006 we prevented many suicide attacks, and we will continue to do so," Eisin said. "It's safe to come to Israel, as it was in the past."
Several Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Islamic Jihad said the bomber was Mohammed Faisal al-Saqsaq, 21, from Gaza City. Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Eilat suicide bombing.
"My position regarding this operation is that I do not accept it, and I reject and condemn it," the Palestinian Authority president said Tuesday after talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But Abbas voiced optimism that a truce he declared with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December would hold.
"I do not think that this operation in particular will impact the calm between us and the Israelis in the Gaza Strip," he said.
Monday's bombing was an embarrassment for Abbas' Egyptian hosts, as the terrorist traveled to his target through the Sinai Peninsula.
Although peaceful by Israeli standards, the Eilat area has seen at least one other terror attack. In November 2003, a Jordanian armed with a Kalashnikov rifle crossed the border near Eilat and opened fire on a group of Christian pilgrims from Ecuador, killing one woman and injuring five others. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility at the time.
Israeli media reported that about six months ago, the Cabinet was informed by security officials that Egypt was observing an al-Qaida network operating in the Sinai desert. Several attacks in recent years have targeted Israelis and other foreigners along Sinai's beaches.