- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

TEL AVIV — A Palestinian suicide bomber set off his charge at a falafel stand near Tel Aviv’s central bus station yesterday, killing himself and at least nine bystanders in a new test for the already rocky relationship between the newly elected Israeli and Palestinian administrations.

The explosion occurred shortly before 2 p.m. outside the Mayor’s Shwarma and Falafel Restaurant, injuring about 65 people among a crowd of lunchtime diners, many of whom were off work because of the weeklong Passover holiday. The Middle Eastern-style eatery had been bombed three months earlier, but no one was killed on that occasion.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack as an act of terrorism and called for the security forces to prevent such attacks. But the new Hamas-led government refused to do so, calling the bombing a natural response to Israeli oppression.

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert will have to calculate his response even as he haggles with potential coalition partners to form a Cabinet from among the winners of the March 28 election.

“We will know what to do,” he told reporters. “Israel’s government will do what it needs to do to hit terrorists in any place at any time.”

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack and released a videotape of the bomber, reportedly a teenager from a village near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. The Iranian-funded militia has carried out most of the nine bombings against Israeli targets since Israel and the Palestinian Authority declared a cease-fire in February 2005.

The bomber triggered a 12-pound explosive charge laden with scrap metal after being stopped by a security guard at the entrance to the sandwich bar. One witness said the sidewalk tables were full of patrons.

The attack, the deadliest since the cease-fire was declared, highlighted the rift in the Palestinian government, with Mr. Abbas denouncing the bombing while a spokesperson for Hamas described it to an Arab satellite television channel as a legitimate act of self-defense.

“We warned that Israel would be responsible for its crimes against the Palestinian people,” said Hamas legislator Sami Abu Zuhri. “Our people are in a situation of self-defense, and its their right to use any means necessary to protect themselves.”

But the Hamas-led government is likely to face mounting international criticism as it struggles to cope with a cutoff in aid from the United States and Europe. Iran on Sunday promised $50 million to the Palestinian Authority, but that will not be enough to enable it to pay government employees.

Although Hamas has honored the cease-fire better than other Palestinian groups, the Islamic militants have said they won’t prevent other factions from staging attacks.

“We’ve never encountered this situation before. Everyone, including the U.S., is playing this by ear,” said Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and one-time senior official in Mossad.

“The whole doctrine of how you deal with a [militant Muslim] organization when it is elected democratically is an evolving one.”

The attack occurred just hours before the inauguration of Israel’s newly elected parliament in Jerusalem.

The bomb site was located at the entrance of Neve Sha’anan, a seedy pedestrian promenade with shops that cater to Israel’s working class and tens of thousands of foreign laborers who live in the area. The area has been targeted several times since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

The explosion blew out the windshields of parked cars and left ceiling insulation inside the sandwich bar dangling awkwardly from wires.

A January explosion at the same site “was child’s play compared to this. The force of the explosion lifted us,” said Yakov Yisrael, who saw the explosion from a nearby music store. “There’s nothing that prevents anyone from dropping off a bomber right across the street there.”

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