Hopes dimmed for an end to suicide attacks

Arafat condemns terror but says his security force has little power to stop it

May 09, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RISHON LETZION, Israel - David Myara, hovering over the shoulder of a friend, watching as she dropped coins into a slot machine in a pool hall, didn't see the man blow himself up only a few feet away.

But he heard the blast and he felt it, as fragments of bolts packed into the bomb struck one of his legs. The 59-year-old farmer was recovering yesterday at Tel Hashomer Hospital and, between bites of lunch, was able to describe his first visit to an illegal gambling parlor Tuesday night turning into a horror show.

"I wasn't there 15 minutes and all of a sudden there was an explosion," Myara said. "The walls were coming down. It was very dark, and people were stepping on other people on the floor as they raced for the door."

In all, 15 Israelis and the bomber were killed, and scores more injured, in an explosion that destroyed a third-floor gaming room packed with customers in a new industrial park on the outskirts of the city.

The ceiling partially collapsed, and the floor buckled. Nine plate-glass windows shattered, and debris covered the green felt tops of the pool tables. Where the bomber had stood was a black shoe stained red with blood and three billiard balls. A charred slot machine showed three bars - a winning combination frozen in time.

This latest suicide attack was especially sobering for Israelis who hoped that the army's six weeks of fighting in the West Bank would end the bombings.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat issued one of his strongest condemnations of terrorism, for the first time asking in a televised statement not only for an end to attacks within Israel but also against soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"I have given orders to Palestinian security forces to confront and prevent any terrorist operations against Israeli civilians by any Palestinian party, parallel to confronting any aggression on Palestinian civilians from the Israeli army and Jewish settlers which we all condemn," Arafat said.

But Arafat said his police were too weak to prevent attacks, because members of the security forces had been targeted by Israel during its military offensive. He asked the United States and the international community to help support his forces so they could carry out his orders. The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing and said that more attacks would follow. "Israel's action will not go unpunished," Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, told the Associated Press. "They have harmed civilians and so their civilians will be harmed."

Here, Meir Nitzan, the mayor of Rishon Letzion, wore a hol- stered pistol as he stood in the remains of the pool hall. He expressed doubts that force alone would bring peace.

"We have to work on parallel tracks," Nitzan said. "One is to fight terrorism as if the hope for peace never existed. At the same time, we must pursue peace negotiations as if terror never existed."

Nitzan said he bought his gun after a suicide bombing in March. Israeli civilians had sometimes shot and killed suspected terrorists, he said, and he urged residents of Rishon Letzion to take up arms and defend the city: "If I tell the citizens to do something, then I should be prepared to do it myself."

Patrons said the pool hall, built over a children's toy and clothing store, did not have a guard, as is now required for any establishment that can hold more than 30 people. Nitzan noted that the business was illegal - gambling is prohibited in Israel - and that there probably was a bouncer to warn the owners about police patrols.

But patrons said that the customers included Jewish Israelis and Israeli-Arabs and were all well known to one another. They said the bomber might have frequented the establishment.

The man, who carried a large suitcase containing a 6-pound bomb, managed to walk inside the hall, pushing through a crowd to stand near a line of slot machines. There, he detonated an explosive powerful enough to crack the concrete walls of the stairwell. Part of the building collapsed, trapping people under the rubble.

Iris Roth, 47, owns the first two floors of the building - the part with the children's stores - and came yesterday to assess the damage. She, too, was unsure whether more violence would solve anything.

"We never finish this problem with the Palestinians," she said. "We have to stop fighting and sit down and talk to solve our differences. I'm for total separation. There should be two states. Divide into two countries - Palestine and Israel. Force will only help temporarily."

Myara said much the same in his hospital bed. "We have to reach a peace agreement," he said. "War is the end of the world."

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