- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

TEL AVIV — Two Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up yesterday near the entrance to the port in the southern city of Ashdod, killing at least 10 persons in a rare attack on a heavily guarded Israeli industrial zone.

In addition, 15 Israelis were injured in the blasts, which occurred at about 4:20 p.m. and exposed a security flaw at one of the country’s most sensitive strategic locations.

One of the explosions went off inside the port area just a few hundred yards from storage facilities containing flammable chemicals.

The explosion stoked Israeli fears of an attack on the scale of Thursday’s commuter-train bombings in Madrid, which claimed 200 lives.

The second blast occurred a few hundred yards away, destroying an office just outside the industrial zone.

“This time, the terrorists were trying to target a strategic asset, rather than simply civilian sites,” said Yuval Steinmetz, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee.

“If they had succeeded to hit a chemical container, they would have caused massive damage. It shows that Palestinian terrorists are planning acts of mega-terrorism.”

Early today, Israel retaliated, as helicopter gunships struck two metal foundries in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian witnesses said one man was wounded when at least 10 missiles slammed into foundries in the Gaza City districts of Sheikh Radwan and Zeitoun, both Islamic militant bastions.

Claiming joint responsibility for the bombing, Hamas and the military wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party said the suicide bombers came from the Gaza Strip’s Jabaliya refugee camp.

If confirmed, it would mark the first time in the 3-year-old conflict that Palestinians had succeeded in infiltrating the fence and checkpoints surrounding the Gaza Strip to carry out an attack in Israel.

Hamas leader Abdel Azziz Rantisi said the attack was retaliation for an Israeli military incursion into two Gaza refugee camps a week ago.

Palestinians say Israeli military operations have resulted in 44 Palestinian deaths in the past two weeks.

“The attack proves that despite all of the security precautions taken by Israel, two martyrs succeeded in reaching this sensitive area and pummeling it,” said Muhammad Nazal, a Hamas spokesman. “This is a response to Israel’s massacres.”

The success of the Gaza Strip fence in preventing Palestinian militants from smuggling explosives into Israel often is cited by proponents of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

The bombers were identified as Nabil Masoud and Muhammad Salem, both 17-year-olds, who dressed in Israeli military uniforms in a videotaped farewell message.

The bombing prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cancel plans for a meeting this week with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia — the first scheduled between the two since Mr. Qureia was appointed last year.

Though the Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing, Israel repeated criticism that nothing was being done to rein in the militants.

The Ashdod port is one of the country’s two major shipping docks. The complex is secured by a private company that is overseen by government security agencies.

Hours after the attack, port officials and police officials still were at a loss to explain how the bomber was able to penetrate the port’s perimeter.

“The port is considered to be hermetically sealed,” said Doron Keren, a customs officer at the port who witnessed the explosion. “I have no idea how they penetrated it.”

Israeli security officials said the explosive material was similar to the bomb used nearly a year ago in the bombing of the Tel Aviv seaside pub, Mike’s Place.

Witnesses said the bomber who managed to enter the industrial zone had chatted with some port workers, requesting a drink of water. Police officials speculated that the bombers were targeting nearby containers of industrial chemicals.

The attack unleashed criticism from within the governing coalition of Mr. Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

“The attack proves that all talk of uprooting settlements only encourages terror,” said Tourism Minister Benny Elon. “Whoever thinks they can flee Gaza will be chased by Gaza into the heart of Israel.”

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