Israel blames Syria for Tel Aviv attack

Officials point out ties to Islamic Jihad, warn of targeted assassinations

Palestinian reaction awaited

February 27, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israel has declared Syria responsible for a Palestinian suicide attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed four Israelis, wounded dozens more and threatened to taint the conciliatory atmosphere that has taken hold since the death of Yasser Arafat.

While saying that no imminent retaliation against Syria itself was planned, Israeli security officials suggested yesterday that a campaign of assassinations could resume against senior members of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group whose Syrian-based leadership claimed responsibility yesterday for the previous night's attack.

"Israel sees Syria and the Islamic Jihad movement as those standing behind the murderous attack in Tel Aviv," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's office said in a statement after a late-night meeting of senior security officials.

Israeli officials said a planned Israeli pullback from five West Bank cities and towns was on hold while Israel assesses anti-terrorism efforts by the Palestinian side.

Acting separately, Israeli and Palestinian authorities made a total of seven arrests yesterday in connection with the bombing, the first of its kind in nearly four months, security officials on both sides said.

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, blamed an outside entity for the attack, which targeted Israeli patrons waiting to enter a popular karaoke bar called Stage, on Tel Aviv's seafront promenade.

"There is a third party that wants to sabotage this process," Abbas told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, not naming a specific group or government. "This act harms our interests, our path and our goals, and we will not hesitate for a minute to track them down, bring them to justice and punish them."

In a break with common practice in the Arafat era, Abbas issued a swift and unequivocal condemnation of the bombing, which struck a sharp blow to Israelis' hopes that the era of suicide attacks could be drawing to a close. The powerful blast, set off in the midst of revelers arriving at the nightclub shortly before midnight, sprayed the street with shrapnel, shards of debris and body parts.

The attack was condemned by the Bush administration, which announced in a White House statement that it has been in touch with the Palestinian leadership "to urge immediate and credible action by Palestinian security authorities, in cooperation with the government of Israel, to determine who is behind this terrorist act and to bring them to justice."

Despite the claim of responsibility by Damascus-based Islamic Jihad, Israeli officials and analysts also voiced strong suspicions that another Syrian-linked organization might have been involved: the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.

"We are well aware that Islamic Jihad has taken responsibility, but I can only say that we know that over the recent period of time Hezbollah has been actively trying to do something like this," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

A senior Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators were probing Hezbollah links to the attacker, who was identified as a Palestinian university student from a village in the northern West Bank.

The bombing set off a highly unusual round of denials and finger-pointing among Palestinian militant groups.

Yesterday, a senior leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank said a well-known Hezbollah operative, Kais Obeid, had been trying to recruit militant activists to carry out an attack, offering them a cash payment to do so. Obeid also tried to get Al Aqsa to claim responsibility once the attack had been carried out, the senior leader of the group said.

In the past, militant groups have often rushed to boast of inflicting casualties on Israelis. But in this case, Islamic Jihad took nearly a day to make a definitive claim of responsibility.

Even if their anti-Israel ideology has not changed, militant organizations based in the Palestinian territories have strong pragmatic motives for observing a truce, at least for the time being.

Until recently, Israeli troops had been aggressively hunting down the known leaders of the major militant organizations. A return to the practice of what the Israelis call "targeted killings," even if aimed only at Islamic Jihad, could lead to a general unraveling of the cease-fire.

As they weigh their options, militant groups are also mindful of public opinion. Among Palestinians, popular support for a violent struggle against Israel has fallen off sharply after more than four years of unrelenting conflict yielded no tangible political gains.

Opinion polls in recent weeks have consistently suggested that most Palestinians want to give Abbas a chance to try to extract concessions from Israel to ease the hardships of their daily lives.

While expressing distrust of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the militant groups are searching for a place in the new Palestinian political order.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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