JERUSALEM — A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded ultra-Orthodox neighborhood here as the Jewish Sabbath ended Saturday night, killing nine Israelis, including five children. Hours later, Palestinian gunmen early today ambushed an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank, shooting dead at least seven soldiers and Jewish settlers.
The toll of 16 dead in barely 12 hours shocked a nation already traumatized by nearly a year and a half of bloodshed, warfare and revenge that only worsens. The latest attacks follow Israel's military assault on two Palestinian refugee camps.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 6, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli victims--A headline in Section A of some editions Sunday said that 16 Israelis were killed in the West Bank. They were slain in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In the Saturday night attack, the dead included an 18-month-old girl and four other children. More than 50 people were wounded in the suicide bombing, which occurred as families were emerging from Sabbath prayers or bar mitzvah celebrations.
The attacker approached a group of women with baby strollers before detonating the large nail-packed explosive device on his body, police and witnesses said.
It was the deadliest suicide bombing in Israel in three months.
Within hours of the powerful blast, which rocked downtown Jerusalem, a militia linked to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility and said the bombing was in revenge for Israel's military assaults on the two refugee camps. The assailant was identified as a 19-year-old from the Dahaisha refugee camp near Bethlehem, where hundreds of Palestinians late Saturday rallied in his honor and rejoiced at hearing the news.
Early today, Israeli helicopter gunships unleashed a barrage of missiles at Palestinian security targets in Bethlehem. No casualties were reported in the retaliatory strikes.
Militant Palestinian groups had threatened new attacks on Israelis after the Israeli army stormed the two West Bank refugee camps last week. Israeli forces have pulled out of the two camps after raiding hundreds of homes. More than 20 Palestinians--gunmen, police and civilians--were killed in the incursions, which started Thursday.
In Jerusalem, the bomb blast in the religious Beit Israel neighborhood torched cars, shattered their windshields and scattered human body parts for yards. It occurred just after nightfall outside the Mahane Israel seminary, synagogue and guest house, which specializes in Sabbath family gatherings. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews were pouring into the streets of the neighborhood, returning from evening prayers.
Joseph Fuchs, a 25-year-old resident, ran to the site as soon as he heard the explosion. He found an empty baby carriage and several children, burned, lying on the ground. The bomber had picked one of the busiest times possible to attack, said Fuchs, dressed still in his Sabbath finery of long black coat and round fur hat.
Hours afterward, religious burial society volunteers joined emergency workers, removing the remains for proper interment and wiping away blood. The force of the blast was such that blood splattered three stories high on the beige stone facade of the Mahane Israel guest house.
The red shoe of a child and a diaper sat in the debris left by the explosion.
Nearby, groups of ultra-Orthodox burst into the chants that always follow terrorist bombings.
"Death to the Arabs!" they shouted. "No Arabs, no terrorism."
Members of the Hazan family had spent the weekend at the guest house attending the bar mitzvah of their young relative, Naveh.
"I was taking things out to the car, and suddenly I found myself right by the explosion," Shirley Biton, one relative, said from her hospital bed. "The next thing I remember, my brother was covered in blood and everyone was running and all sorts of things were flying all over the place."
Biton was hit in the thigh by metal pieces packed into the bomb for maximum lethal effect. Her brother also survived.
Zion Alcobi, 39, and his 7-year-old son, Yaacov, had also just left Naveh Hazan's bar mitzvah and were standing on the sidewalk.
"We had just celebrated havdala," Yaacov said, referring to the ceremony marking the Sabbath's end Saturday night and the transition to a new week. At first, he thought that he heard firecrackers set off by pranksters marking last week's festive Purim holiday.
"But then I saw the fire and I saw the car falling to pieces and I understood it was a terrorist attack," the boy said from the hospital bed he was sharing with his father. "I fell to the ground. Then I ran." The boy suffered minor scratches.
Aviva Nahmani, Naveh's mother, ran into the street "like a crazy woman" frantically searching for her three children after the bomb turned the nighttime scene into bloody chaos. Eventually, she found her two daughters and Naveh.
"This is an event that I so waited for, that my boy would go up to the Torah," Nahmani said, referring to the culmination of his bar mitzvah. "But this is not what we hoped for. It's too bad that we don't have security in this country, that even here, in this holy city, we have to fear."