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Suicide Bombing Leaves 4 Dead at Tel Aviv Cafe

March 22, 1997|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — In a grotesque attack that Israelis had been anticipating for days, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded cafe here during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim on Friday, killing three women and wounding 46 other people.

Waiters and wounded customers at the chic cafe, on a tree-lined residential street, said a man in his 20s entered the restaurant carrying one or two duffel bags and then sat down at an outdoor table. Minutes later, the restaurant exploded in a flash.

"It looked like a battleground," said Gad Yaacobi, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "Bodies, blood everywhere, a horrible sight."

An anonymous telephone caller to Israeli public television claimed responsibility for the explosion in the name of the militant Islamic group Hamas. It was the first such attack in Israel since Hamas and another group, Islamic Jihad, launched a series of suicide bombings a year ago that killed 60 people.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat publicly condemned the bombing as terrorism and telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer condolences.

But Netanyahu blamed Arafat's Palestinian Authority for having given "a green light" to extremists to carry out violence against Israel.

It was not immediately clear if the bombing would deal a crippling blow to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Netanyahu, elected last May on a promise to get tough on terrorism, is under pressure from far-right members of his coalition government to cease peace efforts with the Palestinians.

"This government is not prepared to continue with a process in which there is a series of attacks," Netanyahu said, adding that he will weigh his options over the next few days.

The government slapped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing most Palestinians from entering Israel. And security chiefs from both sides held an acrimonious meeting in which Israel demanded that the Palestinians rearrest scores of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders recently freed from jail and that further violence be prevented.

The cafe explosion followed two days of clashes between rock-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers over Israel's decision to break ground on a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

More than 180 Palestinians were treated at West Bank hospitals Friday for tear-gas inhalation and, in some cases, injuries from rubber bullets.

Police said about 6 1/2 pounds of explosives were used in the Tel Aviv bomb, which was studded with nails and steel ball bearings to maximize damage.

Crying waiters and stunned customers gathered in the glass-strewn streets around the restaurant as rabbis mopped up the blood and carnage in keeping with Jewish law. Neighbors wrung their hands over blown-out windows and argued politics with strangers.

Nechama Milstein, an off-duty police welfare officer who was having lunch with friends at the cafe when the explosion occurred, was among the injured.

"It really happens like they say," Milstein said. "All of a sudden, you hear a loud boom, and then there's a moment of silence.

"It was so quiet, and the ceiling fell on us."

Among those wounded was a 6-month-old girl dressed in a red-and-blue clown costume that was shredded in the blast. Her head was matted with blood, and she screamed as she was carried from the scene by a police woman. She was later reported in stable condition with leg wounds, but her mother was believed to be among the dead.

Purim is a fanciful holiday when children dress in costumes to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews of ancient Persia from a plot to slaughter them.

The actual holiday is Sunday in Tel Aviv and Monday in the walled city of Jerusalem, but school celebrations and many public festivities were held Friday.

Israeli security officials and Palestinian political leaders had warned Netanyahu that beginning construction on the 6,500-unit project would likely ignite violence among Palestinians who want East Jerusalem to one day be the capital of a Palestinian state.

Israel captured East Jerusalem along with the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed the eastern half of the city. Netanyahu said the government has the right to build anywhere in "united Jerusalem" and will not be bullied by threats of violence.

On Tuesday, he ordered a fleet of four bulldozers under military escort to start digging on a hill in southeastern Jerusalem that Israelis call Har Homa and Palestinians call Jabal Abu Ghneim.

At Tel Aviv's Ichilov hospital, where many of those wounded in the cafe were taken Friday, Netanyahu angrily dismissed questions linking the Har Homa construction to the attack.

"This line of thought is inherently wrong. To blame Israel for crimes perpetuated against Israel is a terrible line. To say that, in fact, gives legitimacy to terrorism. There can be no justification for the murder of women and children," Netanyahu said.

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