A suicide bomber from the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad blew himself up Wednesday amid a row of market stalls in this coastal city, killing at least five Israelis and wounding more than two dozen others.
The strike, which followed a threat to retaliate for the killing of an Islamic Jihad military leader by Israeli forces on Monday, was the first in Israel in three months to kill people other than the bomber. It further strained relations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are trying to revive a dormant peace process after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month.
Witnesses described a gruesome scene outside Falafel Barzalai, a restaurant popular with Arabs who work in the central market area where the explosion occurred about 4 p.m. The attacker, identified as Hassan Abu Zayd, 20, of Qabatiya in the northern West Bank, set off explosives he was carrying in a bag outside the restaurant, which is set behind tall eucalyptus trees and between two open-air vegetable stalls.
The blast twisted corrugated tin roofs, shattered windows of grocery stores across the street and left the sidewalk carpeted in leaves and branches. Emergency workers carried bodies from the site hours after the explosion. It was the first deadly attack in Hadera, about 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, since a Palestinian gunman killed six people at a bat mitzvah celebration in 2002.
"I threw myself on the ground, and when I walked outside afterward I saw smoke rising over a scene that was like nothing I could imagine," said Golan Abarjil, 26, who works in a fish market across from the falafel shop. "I saw people with open stomachs, heads on the sidewalks, arms scattered -- like something from a movie."
Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, convened a meeting of security advisers to consider a response. Upon returning from a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Mofaz told reporters: "To my regret, the projections came true. We will do everything we can to strike out at the infrastructure of the organization that carried out this act of terror."
Israel also canceled a scheduled meeting of Israeli and Palestinian cabinet ministers.
Islamic Jihad, which like the larger radical group Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist, asserted responsibility for the bombing and, at a news conference in Gaza, promised more operations against Israel. The attack was the third suicide bombing in Israel this year that killed people other than the bomber and for which Islamic Jihad asserted responsibility.
The group had pledged in March to observe a cease-fire that called for an end to offensive operations against Israel. That agreement was arranged by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after nearly five years of a violent uprising. But Islamic Jihad has been the most inconsistent follower of the informal truce, and Israeli troops have killed a number of its fighters in recent months.
The bombing in this city of 82,000 people followed a speech earlier in the day by Abbas, who criticized Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, and Islamic Jihad for responding to Israeli military attacks with violence. Speaking to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abbas said that firing rockets into Israel and other attacks were "playing into the hands of the occupation."
Abbas is facing mounting pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Bush administration to disarm Palestinian militias, many of which are extensions of political parties. In a statement issued by his office, Abbas condemned the bombing, saying it "harms Palestinian interests and could widen the cycle of violence, chaos, extremism and bloodshed."
Islamic Jihad officials said the attack was retaliation for the killing of Luay Saadi, the leader of the group's military wing in the West Bank, by Israeli soldiers in a raid Monday near the West Bank city of Tulkarm. He was from Atil, a West Bank town about 15 miles east of here where Islamic Jihad has a strong political and military presence.
Saadi was wanted by Israel for his alleged connection to various attacks, including a February bombing outside the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis. He was the highest-ranking Islamic Jihad member killed during months of intensive Israeli military operations in the Tulkarm district.
Hours after his death, Islamic Jihad's military wing vowed in a statement posted on its Web site that it would "not remain with our hands tied" and warned that "the enemy will see what was seen by our martyr."
The group's fighters in Gaza later fired five homemade rockets into southern Israel, prompting the Israeli army to respond with artillery fire and airstrikes over the past two nights. No casualties have been reported.
A senior Israeli military intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recent operations in Gaza were "a message that we are not going to tolerate any rocket fire from Gaza now that we have withdrawn."
The official said that the Palestinian leadership was not discouraging Islamic Jihad from staging attacks and that it recently agreed to allow Iran to pay the families of suicide bombers $5,000 in compensation.
"There's a clear situation in which the Palestinian Authority does not want or cannot operate against the terror," Israel's health minister, Danny Naveh, said Wednesday as he visited Hadera's Hillel Yaffe Hospital, where many of the suicide bomber's victims were taken for treatment. "The condemnations of the P.A. are worthless. Therefore, the government has to continue with aggressive activity that the prime minister and minister of defense have begun."