Palestinian support for Iraq took on a new dimension this week with a suicide bombing in Israel that Islamic Jihad said was aimed at showing solidarity with Baghdad.
Dozens of people were wounded, six seriously, when a suicide bomber blew himself up March 30 next to a crowded restaurant in the coastal city of Netanya. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and identified the bomber as a resident of Tulkarm.
The group's secretary, Ramadan Shalakh, said the attack commemorated Land Day, which itself marks the deaths of six Israeli Arabs during protests in 1976 against state confiscation of Arab lands in the Galilee. Shalakh also said the bombing was a show of solidarity with the Iraqi people.
Israeli security officials have warned that the U.S-led military campaign in Iraq could prompt a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks. Solidarity with Iraq was a prominent theme in March 30 Land Day demonstrations.
Large numbers of police were stationed around Arab population centers in northern Israel but were instructed to keep a low profile. The Israeli Arab leadership had called for peaceful demonstrations, and there were no violent incidents.
The March 30 bombing was the first in Israel since a March 5 suicide bus bombing in Haifa that killed 17 people. The attack came as Israel continued to closely monitor the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq to determine whether to alter the level of civil alert in the country.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet March 30 that the army would begin to reduce the number of reserve soldiers who had been mobilized. Mofaz said this included reducing the number of reservists stationed at gas mask distribution centers, because most Israelis had already refreshed or replaced their kits.
At the same time, Mofaz said an Iraqi attack on Israel was still possible, and Israelis should continue to carry their gas masks with them and maintain sealed rooms.
For Israelis wondering about when the civil alert for Iraq may be lowered, the attack in Netanya was a reminder of the ongoing security threats close to home. The attack occurred around 1 p.m., when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a pedestrian mall near the entrance to a restaurant that was crowded with diners.
According to reports, the terrorist was prevented from entering the London Cafe by a group of soldiers who were assigned to a security detail in the area. One of the soldiers who approached the bomber was very seriously wounded in the explosion, the daily Yediot Achronot reported.
One witness, Amos Harel, said he caught a passing glance of the terrorist before the explosion, but there was nothing that raised his concern.
"I saw the terrorist, but not with focus. He didn't look suspicious," Harel told Israel Radio. "Apparently when he saw the soldiers passing by, he decided to blow himself up."
Another Netanya resident, Ilana, told Israel Radio that she heard the explosion and went running to the scene, knowing that her sister was eating there.
"There were people lying on the ground, lots of flesh everywhere," she said. "This is the fifth attack I've seen. Every terrorist attack is more painful and more frightening, and we wait for the next one."
Among the 50 wounded were 10 Israeli soldiers. One person sustained very serious wounds; five others were listed in serious condition. Police said the casualties were not as large as they could have been, because the bomb used in the attack was relatively small and because the terrorist was not able to get into the restaurant.
Israeli police, border police and troops were out in heavy force the day of the bombing, as part of the deployment for Land Day, as well as the civil defense alert because of Iraq. Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishky said that preventing terrorist attacks is difficult, despite intense efforts by security forces to thwart attacks.
"There is motivation and desire to carry out attacks," he said. The public "should be ready for additional attacks." Â