- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israel was rocked by a pair of Palestinian suicide bombings yesterday that occurred just hours apart at a Jerusalem cafe and at a crowded hitchhiking stop outside an army base near Tel Aviv, killing at least 14 persons and injuring dozens at the height of a countrywide alert for terrorist strikes.

The latest violence will further complicate U.S. efforts to repair a peace plan that has been in tatters since a Jerusalem bus bombing last month and an Israeli offensive against Palestinian fugitives.

Yesterday’s attacks could trigger a wide-ranging Israeli retaliation against Hamas, which praised the strikes as revenge for an assassination campaign in recent weeks against its leaders but stopped short of taking responsibility. Both of the suicide bombers also died in the attacks.

“The time of retaliation has arrived,” Hamas said in a statement attributed to its military wing, according to Al Jazeera television.

Israel had been bracing for the attacks since the weekend, when it unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Rarely during the last three years of fighting have militant groups succeeded in carrying out suicide attacks in two locations in Israel during one day. Yesterday’s attacks came about five hours apart.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to cut short a state visit to India, and return to Israel later today, Israel Radio said. Israeli security chiefs were expected to wait for Mr. Sharon before moving ahead on attacks that would signal a major shift in tactics.

An Israeli government spokesman said the Palestinian Authority shared part of the blame for the attack for not doing enough to stop militants, the Associated Press reported.

The attacks caught the Palestinian government in the throes of a leadership transition. Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia, appointed by Yasser Arafat on Sunday, denounced the bombings.

“We express our regrets and pain for the innocent lives [lost] as a result of violence and counterviolence. Such an act stresses once again the necessity that both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership … search for ways to end this killing,” the prime minister designate said, according to the Associated Press.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking after the first bombing, said the attack “underscores the urgency with which the Palestinian Authority needs to take immediate and effective steps to dismantle and disarm the terrorist capabilities.”

Israeli police had been put on high alert this week for possible attacks. For most of the day in Jerusalem area, Israeli security forces conducted a manhunt for a Palestinian bomber who was believed to have slipped through army checkpoints separating the city from the West Bank. Israeli police said the Jerusalem bombing was not connected to the manhunt.

Earlier in the day, Israel’s army killed two Hamas fugitives and a 12-year old bystander after siege around the Hebron apartment building where the militants had been hiding. Israel’s military said the fugitives had commanded Hamas cells responsible for the killing of 85 Israelis.

The first attack occurred shortly before 6 p.m., as soldiers from the Tzrifim army base crowded together at hitchhiking stop to flag down rides home.

Police said the suicide bomber, who was dressed in civilian clothes, slipped by at least two security guards posted at the stop to mingle with the soldiers. The explosion sprayed metal shrapnel and screws, killing eight soldiers and wounding 30.

Five hours later a second bomber struck a strip of restaurants and boutiques in Jerusalem’s German Colony, an upscale neighborhood of century-old stone villas. Witnesses and police officers said security guards posted at Cafe Hillel struggled to stop the attacker from entering the crowded restaurant, but he detonated the bomb just inside the entrance.

The blast killed six Israelis and wounded about 45. The explosion shattered the front windows of the cafe, destroyed a car parked outside and left bloodstains in the street.

“This was a difficult day,” said Israeli police Chief Shlosmo Aharonishki. “But I should remind us all that we’ve been in this scenario before.”

In Gaza City, which has been buffeted by several Israeli missile attacks over the past three weeks, a handful of Hamas supporters celebrated in the streets after hearing news of the two attacks.

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