Israel rejects Hamas strike

Response for now to suicide bombing is largely symbolic


JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government took the largely symbolic step yesterday of revoking the residency rights of three Hamas lawmakers who live in Jerusalem, holding off on harsher measures against the Palestinians after the deadliest suicide bombing in 20 months.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government had weighed but rejected for now declaring the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority an "enemy entity" or launching a large-scale military operation in retaliation for the attack Monday in a bustling Tel Aviv neighborhood.

The blast killed nine people in addition to the bomber and left scores of people wounded.

The bombing, the first suicide attack in Israel since Hamas took office, was described by the group as a legitimate response to military and diplomatic actions taken by Israel - a marked departure from the stance of previous Palestinian governments, which had condemned attacks targeting civilians.

Although the explosion was carried out by Islamic Jihad, Israeli officials reiterated yesterday that they held Hamas ultimately responsible.

"The Palestinian Authority, and those now leading it, must bear the blame," said Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

After Hamas' victory in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections, Israel has sought to impose diplomatic isolation and economic strictures on the group, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

But a direct strike against Palestinian Authority institutions or elected Hamas officials would have serious long-term repercussions, Israeli analysts said.

"It would set all kinds of precedents," said Gerald Steinberg, who heads a think tank at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "And once you embark on a course like this, it is difficult to turn back."

Israel is also between governments at the moment, making it an awkward moment for any drastic measures. The Israeli army over the past several weeks has been engaged in intensive artillery fire at the northern Gaza Strip, aimed at halting rockets directed at Israel. But at least two Palestinian civilians have been killed and more than a dozen injured in the offensive.

Olmert, 60, who assumed both the national leadership as well as the stewardship of the centrist Kadima party when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke in January, is in the process of forming a coalition government whose shape is expected to become clear in the coming weeks.

In Washington, President Bush repeated his counsel of restraint, even while deploring the Tel Aviv attack. "I have consistently reminded all parties that they must be mindful of whatever actions they take, and mindful of the consequences," he said.

While refraining from any direct strike at Hamas, senior Israeli military officials have urged that travel restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank be tightened and that Islamic Jihad officials be targeted for arrest or assassination, military sources said.

At the height of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, Hamas carried out dozens of suicide bombings. But for more than a year, the group has observed an informal cease-fire that has coincided with its entry into politics at the local and national level.

Nonetheless, Hamas is still regarded as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union because it refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel's right to exist.

In a national ritual that fell on the last day of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover, Israel underwent a round of funerals for victims of the Tel Aviv attack. A makeshift shrine sprang up at the site of the attack, a popular falafel restaurant in a working-class district near the city's bus station. The spot had been targeted in a suicide bombing three months earlier.

While Israeli officials held urgent consultations as to how to respond to the Tel Aviv attack, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, convened his own Cabinet. He told reporters beforehand that "continued Israeli assaults against the Palestinian people" had contributed to the attack.

The Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the bombing.

Israel carried out a series of arrest raids in the West Bank in the wake of the attack. Among the nearly two dozen Palestinians detained late Monday and early yesterday was the father of the bomber, who came from a village outside the West Bank village of Jenin.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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