Suicide bomb kills 4 Israelis near Tel Aviv

15 people injured in blast at bus stop

Palestinian group takes responsibility

3 months of relative calm broken

Israeli helicopter fires missiles at car in Gaza, Islamic Jihad leader dies

December 26, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a bus stop outside Tel Aviv yesterday, killing himself and four Israelis shortly after missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter killed five Palestinians, one a senior militant leader.

The two attacks were thought to be coincidental, but they came after nearly three months of relative calm and threaten stepped-up efforts by the United States and Egypt to restart a faltering peace process.

Renewed violence could send the region hurtling toward a new series of deadly attacks and reprisals that have almost become a choreographed routine of the conflict that has ground on for 38 months and claimed more than 3,500 lives.

The suicide blast occurred two days after the Israeli army raided the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, and killed nine Palestinians, civilians and gunmen in an effort to locate tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt into Gaza.

Palestinian and Israeli officials said last night that the incidents prove their fears about each other. The Palestinians accuse Israel's army of escalating tensions during periods of quiet; the Israelis say the Palestinians never curtailed the violence.

"It is not that we enjoyed three months of calm," said Avi Pazner, a spokesman for the Israeli government and an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Underneath the surface, a war was going on between us and the terrorists. Up until tonight, we had been successful."

The missile strike in Gaza occurred at nightfall, about 5:30 p.m., on a residential street in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood, a militant stronghold.

At least two laser-guided missiles fired from an Apache helicopter hovering high over the densely crowded city slammed into a white Subaru sedan.

Three people inside the car, all militants from the Islamic Jihad group, were killed when the vehicle burst into flames and exploded, Israeli officials said. Two bystanders, one a teen-age boy, were killed, and more than a dozen people were injured.

Among the dead was Makled Hamid, the head of Islamic Jihad's armed wing in the Gaza Strip. While his name is not well known - the militant side of the organization remains underground - Hamid was considered an architect of some of the group's most lethal attacks.

Last night's killing of Hamid was Israel's first assassination since October, when its air force conducted a wave of missile strikes against members of another militant group, Hamas, sending its outspoken leaders into hiding.

The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Qureia, issued a statement condemning the suicide bombing and the killing of Hamid.

Pazner said the army decided to target Hamid because "we did have hard evidence that he was a ticking bomb planning a mega-terror attack. The only way to prevent this was to take him out, which we did." He declined to be more specific.

Israeli security sources released a summary of Hamid's file compiled by the domestic security force, the Shin Bet, which linked him to 17 attacks and attempted attacks in which six Israelis were killed and more than a dozen injured. The army had tried to kill him twice before.

A mob swarmed around the remains of the blackened Subaru and angrily pumped their fists in the air. When word reached them about the bombing in Israel, they shouted, "God has taken revenge."

The suicide bombing occurred about 6:20 p.m. at a bus stop on a busy road that links the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv to the suburb of Petah Tikva. The explosion went off about 20 feet from a bridge that carries a major north-south highway and was packed with rush-hour commuters. It is an area where Palestinians illegally in Israel wait to be picked up as laborers.

Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said the blast killed the bomber; three women, one of them a soldier; and a man; 15 people were injured.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the bombing, and members in the northern West Bank city of Nablus identified the attacker as Shahed Hanami, from a neighboring village, whose brother had been killed by the Israeli army during a recent raid.

In a statement released to the Associated Press, the PFLP said, "We swear to make an earthquake in the Zionist entity." The PFLP is a small organization based in Syria. It gained notoriety for a series of airplane hijackings in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has carried out few attacks in this latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Members of the group set off a string of car bombs in Jerusalem in early 2001, and a PFLP gunman assassinated Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi in a hotel hallway in October 2001. Its leader, Ahmed Saadat, has been jailed in the West Bank city of Jericho since January 2002, guarded by U.S. and British marines.

Last night's suicide attack was the first in which Israelis were killed since Oct. 4, when a bomber recruited by the Islamic Jihad blew herself up inside a restaurant in the northern coastal city of Haifa, killing 23 patrons.

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