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Palestinian Kills Six at Celebration

Mideast: Angry guests at a bat mitzvah overpower an attacker, who is slain. Israeli fighter jets swiftly retaliate in West Bank.

January 18, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A Palestinian militant armed with a gun and grenades burst into a crowded banquet hall in northern Israel late Thursday and opened fire on the dancing guests at a young girl's bat mitzvah. At least six people were shot to death and 30 others were wounded before police and enraged guests overpowered and killed the assailant.

The attack in the city of Hadera came as a relative lull in violence evaporated, along with hopes for a breakthrough after more than 15 months of bloodletting. It was the deadliest incident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than a month, and the Israeli government vowed harsh reprisal.

A militia affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack.

Early this morning, Israeli fighter jets destroyed a Palestinian government complex in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, killing one police officer and wounding nearly 40 other security personnel. And in Ramallah, Israeli troops and armor were bearing down on Arafat's headquarters. The army said the actions were in retaliation for the Hadera shooting and other attacks this week.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the militia affiliated with Fatah, was quoted as saying that it had staged the Hadera raid to avenge the death of Raed Karmi, a militia commander killed Monday in an explosion in his hometown of Tulkarm. Karmi had long been near the top of Israel's most-wanted list.

In Hadera, Israeli police said a lone Palestinian dressed in dark clothes approached the entrance of the Palace of David banquet hall, on the city's central President Street. He ran into the foyer, opened fire with an M-16 assault rifle and was about to lob a grenade when guests and banquet hall employees, some armed with bottles, charged him.

The angry revelers overpowered the gunman when his gun apparently jammed.

Yossi Elbaz, a co-owner of the hall, led the charge and kicked the assailant "with all his might," said an associate, Shimon Asraf.

"We crushed him. We crushed him, then we dragged him outside and started stomping on him," Elbaz told reporters. Elbaz said he believed he had killed the man, breaking his own toe in the process.

Police rushed the man and shot him, a police spokesman said.

Local reports identified the assailant as Abed Hassounah, a 27-year-old militant from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and father of two from a village near the West Bank city of Nablus. Hadera is a few miles from the West Bank and has been the scene of several Palestinian attacks in the last year.

The Palace of David was crowded with about 180 people celebrating the bat mitzvah of a girl from a family that had emigrated in the last decade from the former Soviet Union. The shooting started when the guests were "at the peak of celebration," one person in attendance said.

An unarmed guard at the door was among the dead, hall employees said. Other dead included Russian-born guests at the party.

Hospital officials reported six dead, plus the assailant, with at least 30 wounded.

Survivors helped carry the wounded to ambulances, wrapping them in tablecloths from the banquet room.

Television footage from the scene showed a disheveled banquet hall, with dishes scattered on hastily emptied tables and a few overturned chairs. An askew picture of Nina, the guest of honor, stood at the head of one table.

"People were still dancing when he opened fire," witness Avi Kakon told Israeli television. "He advanced toward the banquet hall while shooting. He shot people who were sitting at tables."

Shlomo Aharonishky, the national police chief, said there had been numerous alerts in the last few days of a likely terrorist attack in northern Israel. Police forces had been redoubled along the border between Israel and the West Bank, and new roadblocks were set up throughout the area after the attack, authorities said.

"We had intensified our alertness around cities we consider to be our underbelly," he said. "But no deployment can prevent a suicide attack."

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held Arafat responsible for Thursday's attack, accusing him of failing to dismantle the infrastructure used by Palestinian extremists to wage war on Israelis. Retaliation was swift.

"We are going to take strong action against the terrorists," government spokesman Avi Pazner told reporters. "We are going to respond in a manner which will teach the Palestinian Authority a lesson they will not forget."

The U.S. State Department condemned the "vicious" terrorist attack and demanded that Arafat seize the killers and "confront the infrastructure that perpetuates terror and violence."

With more than 1,000 lives, the majority of them Palestinian, lost since September 2000, Arafat on Dec. 16 ordered a halt to all Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Violence dropped off precipitously until members of the radical Islamic Hamas movement killed four Israeli soldiers near the Gaza Strip last week.

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