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Suicide Bomber Kills 2 Israelis

Mideast: Jewish state blames Arafat and retaliates. Its security forces remain on high alert as Maccabiah Games begin.

July 17, 2001|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A suicide bomber killed himself and two Israeli soldiers at a crowded bus stop north of Tel Aviv on Monday, bringing Israel and the Palestinians closer to conflagration as Israel quickly retaliated.

Israeli tanks shelled Palestinian security outposts in the West Bank towns of Tulkarm and Jenin just hours after the bombing. No casualties were reported.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, had said it was carried out by a 20-year-old from a village near Jenin.

Israeli military sources told the newspaper Haaretz that the shellings were an initial response and that wider military action would be taken.

Israeli officials said they believe that the bombing was meant to mar the opening of the Maccabiah Games, often called the Jewish Olympics, in Jerusalem. In a jarring juxtaposition of images, Israeli television cut from graphic witness accounts of the bombing to the gala festivities underway amid tight security at Teddy Stadium.

In claiming responsibility for the bombing, Islamic Jihad said it had dozens of other bombers ready to strike in Israel.

In addition to those killed, four people were injured when the man strapped with explosives blew himself up across from the Binyamina train station. Israel's main north-south rail line runs through the small town, and two commuter trains had just disgorged their passengers. Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said police believe that the bomber may have intended to detonate his explosives on a train.

Ever since a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and 21 young people outside a Tel Aviv nightclub June 1, Israeli pundits have predicted that the next such bombing would trigger a broad military campaign against the Palestinian Authority.

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority condemned the bus stop bombing and called for "a stop to all violent actions from all sides."

But Israeli officials blamed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Israel will continue to observe the cease-fire, said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But "at the same time, we reserve the right to exercise the right of self-defense enunciated by the Cabinet, and in conjunction with the continuous attacks against our citizens and soldiers, we are going to exercise the policy of immediate response to every attack," he said.

Gissin noted that the bombing came just a day after Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Arafat in Cairo. Peres came away from the meeting saying he hoped that the cease-fire could yet take hold.

"This is Arafat's reaction to the meeting with Peres," Gissin said.

The bombing came as Israeli-Palestinian violence is escalating. Israeli troops punched into Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank city of Hebron twice Monday in response to Palestinian shooting attacks on Jewish settlers who live in the divided city. Palestinians have stepped up drive-by shootings on both soldiers and settlers.

Palestinians said nine people were wounded in the first incursion, the deepest into the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron since Israel pulled out of part of the city in 1997. The Israeli army said it destroyed four outposts of the Palestinian Force 17 security service.

Across Israel, security forces have been on high alert for days to prevent any attack that could disrupt the Maccabiah Games. The suicide bombing came less than an hour before Jewish athletes from more than 45 nations paraded before a thin crowd of fans.

The games are being held even though thousands of athletes canceled because of the tensions. About 2,000 international athletes have joined about 1,000 Israelis to compete in a truncated version of the games after the government appealed to Jewish communities around the world to come as a gesture of solidarity with Israel.

"On this day of happiness and solidarity, we have experienced yet another horrible crime of Palestinian terrorism," Sharon said in his remarks to the crowd. "Your coming here is proof of the victory of the spirit of the ancient Maccabim, the victory of determination and our just cause."

The Maccabees were a Jewish family that led a guerrilla war in the 2nd century BC. They are still honored as Jewish heroes.

Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin told Israel Television that "Arafat is sitting somewhere and smiling--saying that you can talk with me, but I am hitting you."

Rivlin and other members of Sharon's right-wing Likud Party had criticized Peres' meeting with Arafat, saying it violated Sharon's vow not to negotiate with the Palestinians until attacks on Israelis stop.

Earlier in the day, two Palestinians were killed about half a mile from Teddy Stadium when a bomb they had been assembling exploded, police said. Jerusalem Police Cmdr. Mickey Levy said it was too early to say whether the bomb was meant to be planted at the stadium.

In the Binyamina attack, a 19-year-old woman who was serving in the Israeli army was killed instantly and a 20-year-old man, also a soldier, died later of his wounds. Two others were seriously injured , according to police.

Moshe Geta was picking up his 20-year-old son, a soldier coming home for leave, at the train station when he felt the explosion and saw flames leap into the air.

"My car went up in the air, and above my car I saw a body part flying," Geta told Y-net, the Internet news service of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot. Geta said he found his son lying stunned but otherwise unhurt on the ground.

"I looked around and saw a station wagon with its windows blown out, body parts on the ground and people trying to help until emergency crews arrived," Geta said.

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