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Palestinian Kills Israeli and Herself With Bomb

January 28, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — For the first time in nearly 16 months of conflict, a Palestinian woman apparently carried out a suicide bombing Sunday, killing herself and an 81-year-old Israeli man in a blast that ripped through the heart of commercial Jerusalem at midday.

Israeli police said more than 100 people were wounded in the attack, which occurred outside a shoe store on a busy stretch of Jaffa Street that has been targeted repeatedly.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who has seen the center of this city turn into a ghost town during the bloody fighting with the Palestinians, gave a statement to Israel Radio that offered little comfort to an increasingly shellshocked public.

"We are in the middle of a war, which will not end soon, and there will be more victims," he said.

The Palestinian Authority immediately condemned the bombing. The television station of the radical Lebanese Islamic movement Hezbollah identified the bomber as a female student from An Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus. But an Israeli police spokesman said Sunday night that the woman had not been identified and that investigators were not certain that she had intended to blow herself up in the blast.

Israeli commentators noted that if a woman had indeed carried out a suicide assault, it would change security operations here. Until now, Palestinian women, who rarely mount any sort of attack, have been left relatively undisturbed at checkpoints and by police patrols and other security operations.

Israel held Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat responsible for the bombing. Government officials accused the Palestinian leader of inciting such attacks, and they promised swift retaliation.

The explosion shattered storefronts, knocked down shoppers and sent a thick plume of black smoke into the air just a few yards from where a Palestinian gunman opened fire on crowds last week, killing two women and injuring more than a dozen people before police shot him to death.

Among Sunday's wounded, police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki said, were policemen on foot patrol who were standing close to the bomber when the blast occurred. By nightfall, police said the number of injured was 150, but most of those had sought treatment for shock or superficial shrapnel wounds. Three of the victims were reportedly in serious condition, and nine others were moderately wounded.

The bomb exploded across the street from the Sbarro pizzeria where a suicide bomber killed himself and 15 other people, including several children, in August.

Doctors from Bikur Cholim Hospital, less than a block away, ran from the hospital to the scene when they heard the blast and began treating victims in the street.

Stunned and bloodied pedestrians--some weeping uncontrollably--picked their way through mounds of glass and twisted steel. One woman, apparently uninjured, fainted on the sidewalk a block from the blast. A man muttered to no one in particular: "They will kill us one by one, until they finish us all."

Strangely silent crowds gathered behind hastily erected police crime scene tape, watching as a long line of ambulances ferried the wounded to nearby hospitals.

"Why aren't you screaming 'Death to the Arabs?' " an angry young woman asked a cluster of onlookers. No one bothered to reply.

"Jerusalemites do not cry out anymore," said a grim-faced woman wearing a long skirt and boots, who declined to give her name. "They've just gotten used to walking the street and being blown up."

Later Sunday, Mayor Olmert met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ask for more security and economic assistance for downtown merchants.

A few miles from the carnage, Sharon and his Cabinet were nearing the end of their weekly session as the attack took place. Ministers had discussed the government's response to the Jan. 17 attack on a party hall in Hadera in which six people and the gunman who sprayed their celebration with automatic weapons fire died.

The Cabinet issued a statement saying it would react to Sunday's bombing in keeping with previous Security Cabinet decisions.

The government decided months ago to respond to every attack on Israelis. Since then, it has repeatedly targeted Palestinian security installations and Arafat's symbols of power. It has moved tanks into the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat has been put under virtual house arrest, and has blown up his helicopters.

The government's resolve to keep chiseling away at Arafat's infrastructure was strengthened over the weekend by statements from President Bush and other senior U.S. officials. They said publicly that they were disappointed with Arafat for failing to rein in militants and for apparently purchasing 50 tons of weapons from Iran and trying to smuggle them into the Gaza Strip in a ship Israel intercepted.

Sunday's suicide bombing "raises serious questions about whether Mr. Arafat is in fact really interested in moving forward with the peace process," Vice President Dick Cheney told "Fox News Sunday."

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