- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

TEL AVIV — A suicide bomber detonated an explosive outside a seaside bar in Tel Aviv late yesterday, killing at least four other persons in an attack that shattered a fragile truce declared by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month.

The explosion, which left dozens wounded, ripped through a crowd near the entrance of the Stage Club — located a few buildings down from the U.S. Embassy and across the street from the city’s beach promenade.

Early today, Mr. Abbas pledged to track down those responsible for the bombing, the first suicide attack in Israel since a bomber killed two persons in a Tel Aviv market on Nov. 1.

“The Palestinian Authority will not stand silent in the face of this act of sabotage. We will follow and track down those responsible and they will be punished accordingly,” Mr. Abbas said in a statement after an emergency meeting with his security chiefs.

“What happened tonight was an act of sabotage toward the peace process and an attempt to ruin the efforts to establish a state of calm,” he added.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms” and said it is essential that Palestinian leaders take “immediate, credible steps” to find those responsible.

While noting the Palestinian condemnation of the attack, Miss Rice said, “We now must see actions that send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated.”

There were conflicting reports regarding which Palestinian militant group was responsible. The attack ended months of calm that had spurred optimism on both sides about an end to more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence and a resumption of peace negotiations.

“Apparently, we will still have to wait until reaching security and the hoped-for peace,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said in an interview with Israel Channel 1 television.

Palestinian security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran and has been trying to disrupt the cease-fire, was behind the explosion. The Palestinian officials said they had tracked recent communications between Hezbollah militant Kais Obeid and a Palestinian who they believed was the attacker.

A Hezbollah official in Beirut denied involvement. “As far as we are concerned, there is no need to respond to such lies that we have become used to it,” the official said. Hezbollah’s television station, Al Manar, reported that Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility.

Hezbollah has emerged as the biggest threat to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian truce, with the Lebanese guerrillas offering West Bank gunmen thousands of dollars to attack Israelis. Hezbollah has hundreds of West Bank gunmen on its payroll.

The attack is likely to delay talks underway to transfer towns in the West Bank to Palestinian control. Israel is likely to press Mr. Abbas’ fledgling administration to confront militant Palestinian groups, a step the new Palestinian president has avoided.

The last suaicide bombing in Israel occurred in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, less than two weeks before the Nov. 11 death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After pledging at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik to halt attacks on Palestinians, Mr. Sharon will now face growing calls for retaliation.

“I have no doubt that there will be repercussions from the attack in the coming days,” Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra told Israel’s public radio station. “We need to tighten the screws and the Palestinians need to tighten the screws.”

The scenes of wounded clubgoers reeling along the strip of restaurants and clubs recalled a similar deadly attack almost four years ago outside the Dolphinarium nightclub.

About 11:15 p.m., the suicide bomber apparently tried to push his way into the bar, arousing the suspicion of the security guard. When confronted, the attacker detonated the bomb amid the young Israelis waiting in line.

Police officials said they are looking for a second armed Palestinian believed to be a companion of the suicide bomber.

“There was no concrete intelligence” of an impending attack, said National Police Chief Moshe Karazi. The police commander said Israeli security agencies were already working under the assumption that militant groups would try to undermine the emerging detente by carrying out attacks.

Israel Radio reported that the attack took the Tel Aviv police by surprise.

The suicide bombing shocked Israelis who had begun to believe that Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas would succeed in easing tensions and stopping the attacks.

“I was sitting in a cafe next door when suddenly I heard a very large explosion,” said Rafi, who would only give his first name. “We went outside and it was quiet. There were people strewn on ground outside the bar.”

Israel has so far welcomed Mr. Abbas’ efforts to persuade militants to halt violence. But officials said they want the Palestinian leader to begin to take steps to dismantle militant groups.

“What we need now is action, and not words,” said Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.


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