TEL AVIV SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT JOSHUA BRILLIANT CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — TEL AVIV -- A terrorist bomb exploded in a crowded sidewalk cafe here yesterday, killing three Israeli women and injuring 46 other people on the eve of Purim, one of the most joyous holidays of the Jewish calendar.
The terrorist carrying the bomb also died in the attack. Israeli authorities have been predicting such an event in the deteriorating relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.
The injured Israelis included a toddler and a 12-year-old girl who were dressed in Purim costumes.
Hamas, the militant Islamic fundamentalist group opposed to the peace process, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Israel slapped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring 2.7 million Palestinians from entering Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately blamed Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority for the attack, repeating an accusation that Arafat had given "the green light" to terrorists to thwart a disputed housing settlement the Israelis are building in Jerusalem.
Arafat denounced the bombing. And a spokesman for the Palestinian leader, Marwan Kanafani, laid the blame on Netanyahu for pursuing a settlement policy roundly criticized by the international community.
The suicide bomber was identified as Mussa Abu Diya, 28, from the West Bank village of Surif, near Hebron. It was the first suicide bombing since early last year, when Hamas launched attacks that killed scores of Israelis in the bloody campaign to stop the peace process.
A Hamas leader recently released from jail by the Palestinian authority issued a chilling call to followers at a rally of 50,000 in the Gaza Strip.
Ibrahim Ibrahim al-Makadmeh said that only "the holy warriors carrying explosives on their shoulders" can stop the bulldozers of the enemy.
In the West Bank town of Nablus, a Hamas leader told 10,000 supporters during a rally yesterday afternoon: "I have good news for you. There is a suicide operation in Tel Aviv.
"This is the only language the occupiers understand, the language of martyrdom," said the Hamas leader, Hamed Bitawi.
Yesterday's explosion ripped through the garden crowd at the Apropos Coffee House in central Tel Aviv during lunch.
The scene reminded many Israelis of the danger they live with -- bloodied patrons lying on the ground, shattered windows, splintered patio furniture, an untouched salad, an empty baby carriage.
"In Israel, we have enough experience to understand such a picture," said Varda Heilpern, who viewed the wreckage from her third-floor apartment window.
Gal Benzur, 22, the bartender at the restaurant, vividly recalled the moments before the blast.
Through the plate glass window, he said, he spotted a man standing in the garden, carrying two bags. He thought the man curious. Then he saw a flash and heard a bang.
"All the glass flew in on me," he said. "Of the people I saw wounded, at least two seemed to be dead. There was a woman and a little baby covered in blood.
"People [in the cafe] ran outside. They thought there might be another bomb. I'm 99 percent sure the man I saw was the suicide bomber."
Beni Iran, a 23-year-old waiter, saw that same man with the bags.
"Then there was a terrible explosion, a sudden explosion a woman with pieces of wood in her body, a man with a torn arm," said Iran.
Gad Ya'akobi and Itzak Livni, two Israeli businessmen, were among the lucky patrons who walked away from the bombing.
They thought about sitting outside in the afternoon sun, but the garden tables were full. They were seated instead at a corner table inside the restaurant.
The force of the blast lifted them out of their chairs.
JTC Shattered glass rained down on them. There was an eerie silence and then screaming. The two men hurriedly left the restaurant.
"I saw scores of people in the cafe garden. The whole place looked like a battlefield," said Ya'akobi, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, who slightly injured his left hand.
The sound of the bomb sent Varda Heilpern and her three children running for the stairwell of their apartment building, across the street from the cafe.
Then they returned to the window of the apartment. Her son grabbed his camera.
"I tried to take my children from the window," she said later. "It's very sad for me as a mother."
But Heilpern also felt a sense of relief. On Thursday night, she was on the second floor of the restaurant, the guest of honor at a surprise birthday party. "I have to thank God. I have to thank God several times," she said.
For Judy Pratt, the bombing recalled the terrorist attack at the Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv's main shopping plaza, last year on the eve of the Purim holiday.
"It's like we live here from one explosion to the next," said the 46-year-old Tel Aviv woman, her face flushed and agitated.
Within two hours of the bombing, angry Israeli demonstrators appeared on a median strip across the street from the bomb scene.