Bomber Wounds at Least 24 in Tel Aviv Restaurant

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 20, 2006

JERUSALEM, Jan. 19 -- At least two dozen Israelis were wounded Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives he was carrying in a commercial section of Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city.

Israeli officials said the 22-year-old bomber was killed in the blast, which occurred just before 4 p.m. inside a restaurant popular with immigrant workers near the city's old bus station. Israeli police officers said only a portion of the bomber's explosives detonated, likely sparing lives.

Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian group, asserted responsibility for the bombing in a videotape released to media outlets soon after the attack, the first in Tel Aviv since last February.

"Suddenly we heard a loud boom and I ran over and saw bodies everywhere on the floor," said Shlomo Alayeb, 46, who sells cigarettes and newspapers at a nearby kiosk.

Alayeb, who was playing backgammon at the time of the blast, said the bomber detonated his explosives near the restrooms at the back of the restaurant, whose name roughly translates to Mayor Shawarma. At the front, the counter displaying salads and the rotating lamb skewer remained intact.

The restaurant's patrons "were lucky," Alayeb said. "If the terrorist had blown himself up in the middle of the restaurant, many would have been killed."

The suicide attack during a busy time of day was the first inside Israel since Dec. 5, when an Islamic Jihad bomber killed five Israelis outside a shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya. It was also the first since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke just over two weeks ago, and represents an early test for his deputy, Ehud Olmert, who has assumed the premier's powers.

Islamic Jihad, the smaller of two radical Islamic movements in the Palestinian territories that are at war with Israel, has asserted responsibility for the last five suicide attacks inside Israel, including this one. Unlike Hamas, the larger radical group, Islamic Jihad has refused to participate in national elections, and its armed wing holds far more clout than its political organization.

Palestinian officials said the bombing was timed to upset the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in a decade, scheduled for Wednesday. Hamas is projected to win roughly one-third of the legislature's 132 seats and assume a role in the governing Palestinian Authority for the first time. Palestinian officials said the attack was designed to provoke an Israeli military response that could threaten the vote.

In a statement, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, vowed to punish those responsible for the attack, whom he called "terrorists who want to destroy all hopes of peace and democracy."

"This terrorist attack aims to disrupt the open atmosphere leading up to democratic elections and sabotage the measures the P.A. is taking to maintain security and calm in the occupied Palestinian territory," Abbas said in the statement.

The bomber was identified as Sami Abed Haseez Antar, 22, from the West Bank city of Nablus. The most recent suicide attacks inside Israel were carried out by Islamic Jihad members from the region around Tulkarm, west of Nablus, along the border with Israel.

Israeli officials said the attack highlighted the inability of Abbas, who is running a weak and nearly bankrupt government, to fulfill his pledge to rein in radical groups that do not recognize Israel. Islamic Jihad has strayed several times from the temporary cease-fire Abbas consolidated last March, and Hamas leaders have said that the agreement expired at the end of last year.

"Even if we know that Islamic Jihad is taking responsibility, we also know Hamas is helping them," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "We know there is cooperation on terrorist attacks. To us they are all the same on this."

Meir said he did not expect Olmert to change his position to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote next week while prohibiting Hamas from campaigning in the city. Olmert will lead the centrist Kadima party into Israel's March 28 elections unless Sharon makes a remarkable recovery. But Meir said the attack "emphasizes once again that terrorist organizations cannot have a role in democracy. Democracy and terror cannot exist."

Special correspondent Ian Deitch in Tel Aviv and researcher Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.

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