A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a fast-food restaurant in a bustling area of Tel Aviv during the Passover holiday Monday, killing nine other people and wounding dozens in the deadliest Palestinian attack in more than a year.
The new Palestinian government, led by Hamas, called the attack a legitimate response to Israeli “aggression.” Israel said it held Hamas ultimately responsible — even though a different militant group, Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility — and would respond “as necessary.”
“We shall, of course, continue to use all means at our disposal to prevent every other attempt,” Israeli Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert said.
Israeli defense chiefs were to consult later Monday, but security officials said a possible reoccupation of Gaza, the base of the new Hamas government, was not being considered.
Early Tuesday, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a metal workshop in Gaza City, causing some damage to the building but no injuries, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli army said the strike targeted a building used by the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for constructing homemade rockets to fire at Israel.
White House reaction
The White House strongly condemned the attack, calling it “a despicable act of terror for which there is no excuse or justification.”
A security guard posted outside the restaurant, the target of a suicide bombing in January, prevented Monday’s bomber from entering the building, police said.
It was the first suicide attack in Israel since the Hamas militant group took over the Palestinian government 2½ weeks ago. Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks, has largely observed a cease-fire since February 2005.
Islamic Jihad, which is believed to be funded in part by Iran and refuses to observe a cease-fire, claimed responsibility in a telephone call to The Associated Press. The group identified the bomber as Sami Hammad, 21, from the West Bank village of Arakeh.
In a video released by the group, Hammad said the bombing was dedicated to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
“I carry out this operation in response to the massacres committed by the Zionist enemy against our people and brothers in the West Bank and Gaza,” he said in the video.
“There will be more such operations with the will of God. I dedicate this operation to prisoners.”
Hammad was dressed in black and wore a headband with yellow Quranic verses written on it.
Hammad’s family said he had studied social work in a distance-learning program but was forced to quit because of money problems. His mother, Samiya, said she saw no warning signs her son was involved with a militant group.
“He’s been working for a week as a waiter at a park. I thought he really went to work,” she said.
After learning of the bombing, family members began moving furniture and belongings out of their home, fearing it would be demolished by the Israeli military.
Islamic Jihad pledges more attacks
Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for all six of the previous suicide attacks inside Israel since the cease-fire was declared. On Sunday, the group pledged to carry out more attacks.
The response by Hamas leaders represented a sharp departure from the previous Palestinian leadership’s immediate condemnations of such attacks.
“We think that this operation ... is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people,” said Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry.
Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Ramahi, secretary of the Palestinian legislature, told the British Broadcasting Corp. the bombing “is a reaction from some Palestinians against the Israeli politics.”
“The only one responsible for these acts is the Israeli government,” he said.
Abbas condemns attack
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah Party, condemned the bombing, calling it a “terrorist attack.” He said he ordered the Palestinian security forces to try to prevent more attacks.
“These kinds of attacks harm the Palestinian interest, and we as an authority and government must move to stop it,” he said. “We will not stop pursuing anyone who carries out such attacks.”
The bomber struck at about 1:40 p.m. at “The Mayor’s Falafel” restaurant, which was targeted in a Jan. 19 attack that wounded 20 people. The restaurant is in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, which was crowded with holiday travelers.
Police said the restaurant hired a security guard after the earlier bombing.
The bomber, carrying a bag stuffed with 10 pounds of explosives, approached the guard at the restaurant’s entrance, witnesses said. As he was being checked, he detonated the explosives. Police said the guard was torn in half by the blast.
“I saw a young man starting to open his bag. The guard begins opening the bag, and then I heard a boom,” witness Moussa al Zidat said.
Witness Israel Yaakov said the blast killed a woman standing near her husband and children.
“The father was traumatized. He went into shock. He ran to the children to gather them up and the children were screaming, ’Mom! Mom!’ and she wasn’t answering. She was dead already ... It’s a shocking scene,” Yaakov said.
Another witness, 62-year-old Sonya Levy, said she had just finished shopping when the blast occurred.
“I was about to get into my car, and boom! There was an explosion. A bit of human flesh landed on my car and I started to scream,” she said.
Her car was 50 yards from the explosion and its windshield was smeared with blood.
For Olmert, no surprise
Olmert said the blast came as no surprise. “It’s not something that we didn’t fear would happen, we know the terrorist organizations continue at every moment to look for opportunities to carry out attacks inside Israel,” he said.
“The security forces are deployed in every corner, every place, but we also know that there is no way we can always prevent such attacks, under all circumstances, in every case.”
Police said 10 people, including the bomber, were killed. Medics said nine of the injured were in serious condition.
The wounded were treated on sidewalks. One man was lying on his side, his shirt pushed up and his back covered by bandages. A bleeding woman was wheeled away on a stretcher. A dazed-looking man walked near the site, his white T-shirt splattered with blood.
The blast shattered the windshields of nearby cars and the windows of nearby buildings. The ground was covered with glass shards and blood. The sign of the restaurant’s building was blown away.
While rescue crews tended to the wounded, a helicopter hovered overhead and a marksman took position on the roof of the targeted building.
Later, Israeli police stopped a car carrying three Palestinians suspected of aiding the bomber, officials said. The car, identified by witnesses at the scene of the attack, was stopped on a highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, police said.
Worst since 2004
Monday’s bombing was the deadliest since Aug. 31, 2004, when suicide bombers on two buses in Beersheba killed 16 Israelis.
It was the second major Passover bombing in four years. In 2002, a Palestinian bomber blew himself up at a hotel in coastal Netanya, killing 29 people. That attack triggered a major Israeli military offensive.
Palestinian militants have carried out nine suicide attacks in Israel and the West Bank since a Feb. 8, 2005, truce declaration. All but one attack have been carried out by Islamic Jihad.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said Israel held Hamas ultimately responsible for such attacks because it is “giving support to all the other terrorist organizations.”
“From our point of view it doesn’t matter if it comes from Al Aqsa, Islamic Jihad or Hamas. They all come out of the same school of terrorism led by Hamas,” he said.