- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel’s defense minister yesterday accused Iran and Syria of masterminding a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv the day before that wounded 20 persons and said the militant group thought to be responsible would be targeted in raids. A Syrian official denied involvement.

Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Syria and Iran, claimed responsibility for bombing a fast-food restaurant Thursday. The Palestinian attacker, who witnesses said posed as a peddler selling disposable razors, walked into the restaurant and blew himself up even though most customers were sitting outside at sidewalk tables, police said. The explosion wrecked “The Mayor’s Shwarma,” a restaurant located in downtown Tel Aviv.

After a meeting with security officials, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said: “We have definitive proof that the financing of the terror attack … came directly from Iran, while the planning was carried out in Syria.”

He said the findings would be shared with American and European officials.

Faisal Sayegh, the director of Syria’s state-run broadcast media, said Syria had “nothing to do with the operation.”

Mr. Mofaz said Israel would tighten security around Nablus, the West Bank city where the bomber lived, and target Islamic Jihad militants in raids, but no major reprisals were planned.

Israel considers Iran to be its biggest threat — a concern that has grown since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack and said it was an attempt to sabotage Wednesday’s Palestinian vote. Islamic Jihad is not participating in the election.

The militant group Hamas staged mass rallies with tens of thousands of supporters across the Gaza Strip yesterday in a show of strength before the vote.

Reflecting the group’s growing confidence, a new poll showed Hamas deadlocked with the ruling Fatah Party. The results were the latest sign of trouble for Fatah, which had dominated Palestinian politics for decades.

Hamas is best known abroad for the scores of suicide bombings it has carried out and its commitment to the destruction of Israel. But it has won over voters by focusing on internal issues, pledging to clean up government and end lawlessness in Gaza. Fatah has been weakened by the chaos and corruption in its ranks.

During the election campaign, Hamas candidates have generally adopted a conciliatory tone, focusing on a clean-government agenda, and being evasive about whether the group would renounce violence.

But during yesterday’s rally, Hamas was clear that the group remains committed to destroying Israel and capturing the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam.

Israeli officials signaled yesterday they would be ready to negotiate with Hamas if it renounces violence and disarms after the election.

“If that takes place and happens, then we can consider or reconsider our position regarding Hamas,” said Raanan Gissin, a senior Israeli official. “If that does not happen, clearly Hamas cannot be a partner.”

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