TEL AVIV — Two suicide attackers set off explosions Wednesday night in a rundown commercial neighborhood here frequented by foreign workers, killing at least three other people and wounding about 40, police reported.
The twin explosions ripped through the Neve Shaanan area, near Tel Aviv's former central bus station, shortly after 10 p.m. Most nightspots were closed as Israelis observed Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning that marks the dispersions of the Jewish people following the destruction of the First and Second temples in Jerusalem.
Witnesses said they heard a blast near the entrance to an open coffee shop favored by immigrant workers from Romania.
"There was an explosion, a couple of moments of quiet, and then another one," said Yelena Malayev, 18, a student who said she and a friend had walked past the site moments before the bombs went off. Malayev said they rushed back to a scene of devastation, where bodies were strewn on the ground and the injured were screaming.
The attack, the first suicide bombings inside Israel since the army reoccupied much of the West Bank last month, came a day after Palestinian gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Jewish settlers to the settlement of Emmanuel, in the northern West Bank. Eight Israelis, including two infants, died in that ambush.
At the White House, President Bush, who is scheduled to discuss the Middle East crisis today with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, offered his sympathy for the victims of the attacks and said, "The American people and I condemn these despicable acts of terror."
The Palestinian Authority also issued a statement condemning the attack, but charged that Israel was responsible for "creating ... the suitable atmosphere for such operations, which we condemn and reject."
Al Manar, the television station of the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, said it received a claim of responsibility for the attack from the militant group Islamic Jihad. The claim could not be verified.
By law, Israeli restaurants, cafes and places of entertainment are closed on Tisha B'Av, but a handful of open cafes in Neve Shaanan were crammed with foreign workers Wednesday after the mourning period began at sundown. The attackers reportedly were less than 100 feet apart when the bombs they apparently carried in bags went off seconds apart, spewing nails and other metal fragments.
The first rescue workers to arrive said the street and sidewalks were littered with bodies. Police said at least one of the dead was a foreign worker, and an ambulance driver said many of the injured appeared to be foreigners.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that many of the 60,000 to 80,000 foreigners working in the city live in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood. Israel has gradually replaced many of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who used to do menial labor with workers from other lands. There are believed to be about 300,000 foreign workers living in the country.
Huldai said the city opened its help center for foreign workers immediately after the blast. "Unfortunately, we are already experienced," he told Israel Television.
Eighteen of the injured were taken to nearby Tel Aviv Medical Center, where one later died, hospital officials said.
From her gurney in the hospital, 18-year-old Hanit ben Abu said she and two friends were sitting at an outdoor table in the shopping strip when they heard a blast.
"We ran toward the first explosion, and then there was the second and I felt the heat on my face," Ben Abu said.
In her confusion, Ben Abu ran into the street and was hit by a car. She was lightly injured.
"I didn't think this would happen to us," said her sister, Smadar, who was at her side in the hospital. "Just make it stop."
Two hours after the blast, the uncovered body believed to be that of one of the bombers lay on a pedestrian strip under a still-lighted shop sign flashing "Have a Good Time," an advertisement for Time cigarettes. Plastic tables and chairs lay on their sides outside the small cafes that bore the brunt of the blasts, and the street and sidewalk were carpeted with debris.
Israel is being used "as a testing ground" by militants, Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said at the scene. "If, God forbid, they should be successful, these weapons, these means, will be exported to the rest of the Western world."
Landau defended police efforts to thwart such attacks, telling The Times that security forces have "absolutely been effective, but in a war, sometimes you get hit."
Shortly before the Tel Aviv attack, Israeli warplanes fired rockets into a metal factory in the central Gaza Strip, in what the army said was a strike against a facility that manufactured mortar shells and rockets. Palestinians have fired hundreds of mortars at Jewish settlements in Gaza, and have sometimes fired them inside Israel's pre-1967 borders, but they rarely cause damage or injury.