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Israelis Launch Reprisal Air Raids

Mideast: F-16s hit Palestinian security targets after a suicide attack injures 29 at a Tel Aviv pedestrian mall.

January 26, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli warplanes struck Palestinian security targets in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Tulkarm on Friday night, hours after a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden belt in a busy Tel Aviv pedestrian mall, killing himself and wounding 29 people.

The F-16 airstrikes marked the latest escalation in an intensifying cycle of killing and revenge that has frustrated U.S. peace efforts and fueled nearly 16 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Palestinians reported that seven people were injured in the attack on the Ansar security compound in Gaza City, next to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's headquarters on the Mediterranean coast. A security officer was killed and 40 people were wounded in the Tulkarm strike, according to Palestinians.

An Israeli army spokesman said two targets were hit "in response to Palestinian terror attacks." He said a previously targeted government building in Tulkarm was hit again because "Tulkarm serves as a point of departure for terrorists," and the Tel Aviv bomber "left from Tulkarm." The spokesman said planes also struck at a depot for armored cars belonging to Force 17, Arafat's presidential guard.

The army said the compound in Gaza was hit in retaliation for the Palestinians' firing of Kassem rockets Friday at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. No one was hurt by the rockets.

"We said either he [Arafat] dismantles the coalition of terror or we dismantle it, and that's what we're doing," Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said in a telephone interview Friday night.

The Israeli reprisal raids came as security forces across the nation remained on high alert, anticipating a Palestinian attack in response to Israel's killing Thursday night of an Islamic militant in the Gaza Strip.

In Jerusalem on Tuesday, a Palestinian gunman killed two women when he sprayed a busy downtown street with gunfire before police shot him dead. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday, six Palestinians died in four incidents, including the nighttime helicopter gunship attack on Bakar Hamdan, 26, whom Israel identified as the military commander of the militant Hamas movement in the town of Khan Yunis.

Hours later, the Palestinian bomber blew himself up as he strolled along the pedestrian mall in gritty south Tel Aviv, an area of small cafes, bars and shops frequented by foreign workers and recent immigrants.

The attack came about 11 a.m. as Israelis were rushing to prepare for the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

"A suicide bomber with an explosives belt blew himself up," said Yossi Sedbon, Tel Aviv's police chief. The force of the blast ripped the bomber's body in half, according to police spokesman Gil Kleiman.

The militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack. It said the bomber was 18-year-old Safwat Khalil from a village near the West Bank town of Nablus.

About 15 ambulances converged on the area and took the wounded to nearby hospitals. Most were in shock or suffered minor injuries, but three of the wounded were reportedly in serious condition. A 4-year-old boy, who was walking with his father and pregnant mother when the blast occurred, suffered a broken leg, according to a spokeswoman for Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital, where 21 of the injured were treated. The boy's name was withheld because of his age.

Chen Meir, 32, said he was working in his supermarket with his brothers when he heard the explosion. "I bent down and heard this huge explosion" Meir said. "I looked around, put my hand on my head, felt blood there."

His brother took him and three other wounded people they picked up off the street to the hospital in his car, Meir said. Doctors removed a bolt from his head. Police said the explosive device the bomber carried was packed with metal bolts.

"I'm a good person and I do good things and, hopefully, that's what saved me," said the married father of two, who wore a fresh bandage on his head as he spoke with reporters.

The government was quick to blame Arafat for the attack.

"All the signs point to one of the extremist Palestinian groups, but again, the responsibility belongs to the Palestinian Authority, which is continuing a policy of terror," Danny Ayalon, Sharon's foreign policy advisor, told the Reuters news agency.

The Palestinian Authority issued an official condemnation of the killing of Israeli civilians and said it also condemned the killing of Palestinians the day before in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian officials say the army's resumption this month of its "targeted killings" of militants--which Palestinians call assassinations--has made it impossible to impose a cease-fire.

Sharon has vowed to retaliate for every Palestinian attack carried out against Israelis. Israel has repeatedly targeted Palestinian security compounds in response to such attacks, accusing Palestinian security services of complicity in many bombings.

The Palestinian Authority says the attacks on its security branches make it nearly impossible for authorities to hunt down the militants whom Israel wants arrested.

*

Special correspondent Aron Heller in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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