JERUSALEM — The Cafe Moment, across the street here from the official residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was packed Saturday night with teenagers and well-heeled Israelis who frequently converge at the trendy eatery. Suddenly, a Palestinian stepped just inside the front door and detonated a devastating bomb, killing 12 people and wounding more than 50 others.
The suicide bombing came two hours after a pair of Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a strip of hotels in the seaside Israeli town of Netanya, killing a baby and wounding 50 people before being shot dead themselves. A second Israeli also was killed, possibly accidentally by police.
In earthshaking retaliation, the Israeli air force early today pumped more than 30 missiles into the Gaza City headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, reducing the compound to a smoldering pile of rubble.
On Saturday, Israeli forces stormed another Palestinian refugee camp and killed several Palestinians, including a 15-year-old girl.
The attacks came as both sides welcomed the Bush administration's decision to return U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni to the region this week, and one day after Sharon dropped his demand for seven days of quiet before negotiations can start.
Alarmed by the ever-growing spiral of violence engulfing Israelis and Palestinians, President Bush announced Thursday that he was sending Zinni to try again to secure a cease-fire. The retired Marine Corps general's first mission, in December, collapsed as violence flared.
But any hope that peacemaking might now be gaining momentum after months of death and destruction has been battered by Israel's ongoing military offensive across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and by the escalating Palestinian revenge attacks.
All of Israel had been bracing for some sort of Palestinian reprisal after the bloodiest week in the 17-month-old conflict was capped Friday with an all-time-high death toll. Saturday night marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath, and Israelis flood places of entertainment, restaurants and banquet halls--prime targets.
In Jerusalem, every table was taken at the popular Cafe Moment, a favorite haunt of the city's elite, and patrons were lined up outside the front door. A Palestinian later identified as a 20-year-old refugee from the Arob camp near the West Bank city of Hebron waded into the crowd and inched inside the door. There, he blew himself to bits, sending bodies, tables and chairs flying in the massive explosion. The powerful bomb spewed nails and other metal bits that had been packed inside for maximum lethal effect.
Sharon, whose walled residential compound is about 100 yards away, was not at home. The radical Islamic movement Hamas claimed responsibility.
"We couldn't move, there were so many bodies," said a woman who gave only her first name, Segal. She was sitting inside the cafe when the blast occurred.
"There was screaming, things full of blood fell on us," she said before being loaded into an ambulance. "People were screaming. People didn't know what to do."
Survivors climbed out of windows as the acrid smell of gunpowder and the cries of the wounded filled the air. Police and rescue crews descended on the site within minutes, and helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead. Some of the dead were still sitting in their chairs, witnesses said.
Ran Yaakoby, an official with the Foreign Ministry, was thrown to the floor by the force of the blast. He pulled a table over his head for protection, then led a friend to safety through a window.
"There were a lot of people, dead or injured, in the cafe and outside of it," he said.
At one of the several hospitals that received victims, a waitress, who declined to give her name, said she had spotted the bomber just before he exploded.
"He was standing at the entrance, right inside the door," she said. "I was on my way from the bar to the front door to give someone a bill when there was this terrible noise. People were on top of each other, and then it was very quiet, and I ran to the kitchen and climbed through a window."
Another survivor, a middle-aged man with a cut above his brow, echoed the feeling of many Israelis who see their sphere of safety shrinking by the day. "We always went to the Moment cafe because it's next to the prime minister's home," he told reporters at the hospital. "We always thought that was one safe place."
At the cafe, in the affluent Rehavia neighborhood, shocked survivors milled around outside as ambulances carted away the wounded. Black plastic body bags were lined up in the stone courtyard of the restaurant before they too were removed. Burial society workers scoured the site for blood and body parts, working well past midnight.
Blood could be seen on the restaurant's facade and about 50 yards down the road. Many of the cafe's front windows were shattered, yet two green neon signs saying "Moment" in Hebrew were undamaged, and glasses and coffee cups were stacked on the bar inside, unscathed.