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Bomber Kills 19 at Israeli Restaurant

The suicide attacker, a Palestinian woman, strikes in a city known for peaceful coexistence. The army responds with missile attacks in Gaza.

October 05, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

HAIFA, Israel — On the eve of Judaism's holiest day, a young Palestinian woman walked into a beachfront restaurant full of diners Saturday and blew herself up, killing at least 19 other people -- several of them children -- in the deadliest such attack this city has seen.

The bombing immediately raised the prospect of tough Israeli action against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom the Israeli government labels a sponsor of terrorism and vowed to "remove" after back-to-back suicide attacks nearly four weeks ago.

"This is an incident that cannot be ignored," Israeli Health Minister Danny Naveh said. "This is our real opportunity to get rid of Arafat for once and for all."

The bombing here turned a brilliant afternoon at the seaside into a grisly battlefield tableau, where the dead lay mangled and the wounded staggered through pools of blood and body parts. Wires dangled from the ceiling of the Maxim restaurant, while smoke wafted through its blown-out windows. Rescue workers combed the gutted eatery in search of survivors.

Israeli radio reported that among the victims were a baby and three other children, wrenched from families out for a day of relaxation and fun before the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which begins at sunset today.

In addition to those killed, dozens were injured.

Four Israeli Arabs were among the dead. Arabs make up a significant percentage of the population of Haifa, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a place of peaceful coexistence.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombing, which ended the relative calm that had prevailed in Israel since last month's double attacks.

After the blast, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened an emergency meeting with security officials, who promised swift retaliation.

Shortly after midnight, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at two targets in the Gaza Strip. The home of an operative of the militant group Hamas, Monzer Kaneta, was hit in one of the strikes, but no one was inside. In the other strike, the home of another suspected militant near the Khan Yunis refugee camp was hit. It also was uninhabited.

Israeli media reported that soldiers had imposed a curfew on and moved into the northern West Bank city of Jenin, where the bomber apparently lived. She was identified as Hanadi Jaradat, a lawyer-in-training in her late 20s whose brother and cousin, an Islamic Jihad member, were killed by Israeli forces in June.

Arafat quickly condemned the Haifa attack, calling it a "violation of the national consensus at this delicate moment." His prime minister-designate, Ahmed Korei, urged Palestinians to "show restraint and halt such operations aimed at civilians because they harm our just and legitimate national struggle."

Korei is expected to unveil his new government this week and already has come under heavy pressure from Israel and the United States to crack down on militant groups in order to resuscitate the moribund, U.S.-backed peace initiative.

"This despicable attack underscores once again the responsibility of Palestinian authorities to fight terror, which remains the foremost obstacle to achieving the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security," President Bush said in a statement issued by the White House. "The new Palestinian Cabinet must dedicate itself to dismantling the infrastructure of terror and preventing the kind of murderous actions that we witnessed today."

The bombing occurred shortly after 2 p.m. beneath gorgeous blue skies that made the beach a natural destination for locals eager to unwind.

The restaurant, a joint venture of Arab and Jewish partners and a fixture on the Haifa shoreline for 38 years, was buzzing with the good humor of several dozen customers, many of them regular patrons on the Jewish Sabbath.

A waiter had just taken Ruth Ginton's order when the powerful blast shook the place.

"All of a sudden, everything collapsed on us. The ceiling came down, and the windows exploded. We thought it was an earthquake," said Ginton, 72, a retired headmistress who was lunching with her son and two grandchildren at a window looking out over the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.

"Then it was silent like a graveyard, and I saw bodies of men and women," she said. "A minute ago, I saw them enjoying themselves eating, and in the [blink] of a moment, they were dead."

At a nearby table, Alisa Ohayon sat waiting for her bill, hankering for a cigarette and smiling at a cute young girl in pigtails. Seconds later, blood was trickling from Ohayon's ears.

"I understood it was a suicide bombing immediately," said Ohayon, 42, who was visiting from Jerusalem. "At first it was like a dream, but I pulled myself together. I was afraid the gas would explode."

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