Suicide bomber wounds 24 in Tel Aviv after Israeli helicopter strike kills Hamas leader

Friday, January 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ A Palestinian suicide bomber detonated nail-packed explosives in a crowded Tel Aviv pedestrian mall on Friday, killing himself and wounding 24 people, hours after Israel killed a senior Islamic militant in a targeted missile attack.

A suspected accomplice in the Tel Aviv attack was arrested, police said. A Kalashnikov assault rifle was discovered at the scene and TV reports said the man apparently dropped it after the weapon he meant to fire at pedestrians had jammed.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority traded blame, each holding the other responsible for the recent escalation of violence. Israel said it would retaliate for the latest attacks on its civilians, while Islamic militants clamored for revenge following Israeli military strikes that killed five Hamas members this week.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, thousands of Palestinians shouted in Hebrew, ``No security, no security,'' and some handed out candy in celebration of the Tel Aviv attack, the first suicide bombing in Israel since a Dec. 2 attack on a bus in Haifa, another coastal city.

Thirty-one Palestinians have killed themselves in suicide bombings against Israeli targets in 16 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. In addition, there have been several suicide missions by gunmen who had no hope of surviving their attacks.

There was no claim of responsibility for Friday's attack, but police said the bomber was a Palestinian.

Just before noon, the assailant detonated explosives strapped to his body, spraying fire, nails, blood and flesh along the brick walkway near the city's old abandoned bus station.

The rundown neighborhood is home to tens of thousands of foreign laborers from the Philippines, Africa and Eastern Europe and was crowded with shoppers.

Mary Martin, a 47-year-old Filipino, was at the home of an elderly Israeli woman she cares for when the explosion went off outside her apartment. She recognized her home on the TV news and raced to the scene.

``I'm so scared. I'm so nervous,'' she said, standing in front of a police barricade, unable to see if her apartment was damaged.

The street is lined with ethnic restaurants, groceries and sidewalk pubs. The force of the blast shattered windows and sent debris raining down from apartment balconies. Sidewalk tables were overturned and the smell of beer hung over the scene, where moments earlier people had been sitting and talking on a warm sunny day.

``There was a big boom. I saw three or four people on the ground. There was black smoke and a lot of panic,'' said a 50-year-old pharmacist, who would only give his first name, Moshe.

In all, 24 people were wounded, including three who were in serious condition, police said.

Gideon Ezra, the deputy police minister, said Israel would retaliate. ``That's the way it is. We have to fight back,'' he said.

Palestinian Authority officials accused Israel of triggering the latest round of violence _ after several weeks of relative calm _ by renewing targeted killings of suspected militants.

``The only way out of this cycle of violence is for Israel to declare that it will stop its aggression ... and return to serious negotiations in order to renew hope among the Palestinians,'' said the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub.

On Tuesday, Israeli commandos killed four senior members of Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, in a raid of their hide-out in the West Bank town of Nablus. Hours later a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israeli women waiting for a bus in Jerusalem.

Late Thursday, an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles at a car in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing an Izzedine al Qassam commander, Bakr Hamdan, 28, and seriously injuring two others.

Thousands of Palestinians crowded around the burned-out shell of the car before his funeral Friday, and Ahmed Hamdan, a Hamas spiritual leader and relative of the dead militant, declared, ``Hamas will not forget the blood of the martyrs, and Hamas will avenge every drop of his blood.''

Israel's military said it killed Hamdan because he was involved in dozens of shooting and bomb attacks on Israeli troops and civilians.

In the West Bank, about 4,000 Palestinians marched to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound, where he has been confined by Israel since last week. The demonstrators demanded that Arafat release suspected militants rounded up after his Dec. 16 truce call.

Arafat complained Friday that the world has forgotten the Palestinians' plight. ``We are the only people under occupation all over the world. Can this be accepted internationally? And why do the Palestinians have to be under occupation?'' Arafat said in an interview with Greek TV.

U.S. officials in Washington have expressed understanding for recent Israeli steps, including holding Arafat under virtual house arrest.

President Bush ``understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes, and it is up to Chairman Arafat to demonstrate the leadership to combat terrorism,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Palestinian leaders were angered by the shift in U.S. policy.

``Sharon is getting a green light from the United States to continue his aggressive and criminal policy against the Palestinian people, from the assassination policy, to the siege policy, to the pressure policy on President Arafat,'' said Hussein Sheikh, head of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank.