- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

JERUSALEM A Palestinian suicide bomber struck Israel yesterday on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, killing at least 19 Israelis as they prepared for the Seder feast marking the beginning of Passover.
The attack marked the biggest setback to date for the latest U.S. peace initiative and overshadowed the formal presentation of a Saudi peace plan at the Arab summit in Beirut.
The bomber detonated a bag of explosives inside a hotel dining room in the northern Israeli city of Netanya in one of the deadliest attacks against civilians in the 18-month old Palestinian uprising.
The explosian injured 140 persons, 25 of them seriously, and devastated the dining room of the luxury Park Hotel, blowing debris onto the street, leaving wires and pieces of ceiling dangling and chunks of concrete and metal bars across broken chairs and tables.
Corpses in white body bags lined the pavement outside after rescue workers finished combing the wreckage and carrying out dazed survivors.
"At about 7:15 p.m. an attacker entered the dining hall and then blew himself up," said Israeli national Police Chief Shlomo Ahronishky. "People had not yet managed to sit down," an ambulance worker said.
President Bush condemned the attack during a speech in Atlanta and demanded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat make an all-out effort to end the violence.
"There are people in the Middle East who would rather kill than have peace," said Mr. Bush.
The Islamic militant group Hamas took responsibility for the blast and said it was timed to coincide with the Arab summit in Beirut.
Mr. Arafat condemned the attack, but Israel officials said he was responsible.
The bombing, the third suicide attack in the Jewish state in a week, accelerated talk of a full-blown Israeli invasion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials have said privately in the last few days that the army was preparing a widespread assault on Palestinians and would put the plan into action if U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni failed to broker a cease-fire.
Gen. Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, has been working in the region since mid-March.
"This is a war, and we have to simply demolish the Palestinian Authority," said Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, who belongs to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party.
"Instead of going in [to the West Bank] and coming out, we have to go in and do everything that needs to be done," Mr. Landau told reporters at the scene of the bombing.
As he spoke, dazed witnesses gazed into the burned-out lobby. An elderly woman with a wound to the head sat on the sidewalk, attended by several people.
The bomber, identified by Israel as a resident of Tuklarem in the West Bank, a few miles east of Netanya, walked past an armed guard into the hotel.
He made his way to the dining room and set off a bag of explosives amid a crowd of around 300 people participating in a Seder dinner, the ritual evening meal that ushers in the Jewish holiday.
Hospital officials described many of the wounded as young children.
Netanya, located about 30 miles north of Tel Aviv and a few miles west of the line separating Israel from the West Bank, has been targeted frequently during 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Earlier this month, Palestinians shot at a hotel in the same area, killing an Israeli baby.
Police had said they were expecting a large Palestinian attack during the holiday, which began yesterday evening and runs a week. Security officials thwarted two other suicide bombings Tuesday and found explosives yesterday in an ambulance run by the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The Israeli army said soldiers who stopped the ambulance in a surprise check near Ramallah in the West Bank found a large bomb crammed into the mattress of a stretcher used by one of the children on board.
Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority said the Netanya bombing was aimed at wrecking Gen. Zinni's mission and scuttling the Arab peace plan.
"The [Palestinian] leadership strongly condemns the Netanya operation against Israeli civilians, especially on the Passover [holiday]," said a statement issued in the name of Mr. Arafat, who earlier yesterday had praised the Saudi-sponsored initiative to trade land for peace with Israel.
Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, told Palestinian television that the bombing was a "message to the Arab League" meeting in Beirut.
"We say to Arab leaders that Palestinians will not surrender, no matter how strong our enemy is," said Mr. Yassin.
Political analyst Yaron Ezrahi said the attack may have been linked to Mr. Sharon's refusal to let Mr. Arafat leave the West Bank to attend the Beirut summit.
"I think that when you deny Arafat room to maneuver diplomatically, he responds with terrorism," he said.
But Israeli officials said yesterday's bombing was planned well before Israel decided to prevent Mr. Arafat from leaving.
"This attack is concrete proof that the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat definitely reject the efforts made by Gen. Zinni to bring about a cease-fire," said Zalman Shoval, a political adviser to Mr. Sharon.
Gen. Zinni has managed to bring Israeli and Palestinian security officers to hold face-to-face talks over terms of a cease-fire, but the two sides differ over details of a truce. U.S. proposals have so far failed to narrow the gaps.
Nearly 400 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians have died since fighting erupted in September 2000. In the last month alone, Palestinians have killed scores of Israelis in suicide attacks.
Although two other bombings in the past year have caused more casualties, the fact that Passover worshippers were targeted this time made the attack all the more dreadful for Israelis.
"Once again Palestinian terrorists have struck against a city in the heart of Israel, this time on one of the holiest Jewish nights, the first night of Passover," government spokesman David Baker said.


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