|JERUSALEM, May 8 -- Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon was flying back to Israel today to lead a scheduled late-night
security cabinet meeting that will consider an Israeli response to a suicide
bombing near Tel Aviv that killed 15 people.
The options are said to range from a renewed occupation of key West Bank towns to a large military operation in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian area in which the extremist group Hamas has a strong presence. Hamas, which renounces any peace negotiations with Israel, claimed responsibility for Tuesday night's blast at a crowded gambling and billiards club in Rishon le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, in which more than 60 people wounded
Another option is for the expulsion from Palestinian territories by Israel of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, a move that the United States opposes. Today Mr. Arafat, under even greater pressure to crack down on militants after Tuesday's bombing, ordered Palestinian security forces to foil any attempt to attack Israeli civilians. "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," Mr. Arafat said in a statement issued in Ramallah. In a new attack today a bomber detonated explosives at a bus stop in northern Israel. The bomber was critically wounded, but no one else was injured. The billiards club attack came after 11 p.m., precisely as Mr. Sharon was meeting President Bush in Washington. Mr. Sharon almost immediately decided to return home, declaring "Israel will not surrender to blackmail." The Palestinian Authority of Mr. Arafat was quick to condemn the bombing, saying it would cause "great harm to our cause." But Mr. Sharon has in the past held Mr. Arafat responsible for all terror attacks, and his statements Tuesday night made clear that he will be contemplating new military plans. "He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first," Mr. Sharon said. He said there would be no shelter for terrorists. Mr. Sharon sent Israeli troops in force into Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank on March 29, in the largest operation in 20 years, to prevent just this kind of attack, the first of its kind since April 12. Israeli security officials said they had been concerned that the Palestinian militants would try during Mr. Sharon's trip to Washington to show that his effort had been in vain.
Uzi Landau, Israel's minister of internal security, who went to the scene of the bombing, called for a tough military response, saying: "We have to keep fighting. The harder we fight, the fewer attacks there will be." The attack was on a club full of people, many of them elderly women, said one survivor, Shlomo Michael, watching as white plastic body bags were brought down from the third-floor Sheffield Club by men on a fire ladder. He said there had been no security guard at the entrance, as required by law, but the police said the club had been operating without permits. Witnesses said the bombing Tuesday night was carried out by a man carrying a suitcase full of nails and explosives who was mistaken for a technician. It was not clear what effect the suicide bombing would have on the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where a deal that would have sent some of the Palestinians inside the compound into exile in Italy stalled Tuesday when Italy said no one had sought its consent. It remained unclear how the talks could have progressed so far without the Italians being asked. The deal came after steep concessions to Israeli demands by Mr. Arafat. But the Tuesday suicide bombing seemed certain to complicate the negotiations to end the siege, which have been going on since April 2. Yafa Ben Ari, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that "Arafat has not answered the call of President Bush to put a stop to terror." "We need to see some concrete action on the ground to show that Arafat has made the strategic choice President Bush has been calling for," he said. The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said Tuesday night that he was appalled by the attack. A statement, issued through his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said Mr. Annan "reiterates in the strongest possible terms his utter condemnation of all indiscriminate attacks against civilians." The statement called such attacks "morally repugnant."
At the same time, the United Nations General Assembly voted by a large majority to request that Mr. Annan prepare a report on events last month at the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, where Israeli forces leveled hundreds of homes. Commanding a far smaller majority was a draft resolution condemning Israel's refusal to cooperate with a fact-finding mission set up by Mr. Annan last month and then disbanded. The resolution was overshadowed by the suicide bombing. The gambling club was on the third and top floor of a concrete building in a commercial zone of this city 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. Rishon le Zion was the first permanent settlement set up in Erez Israel by Zionist immigrants. It was founded in 1882 by 10 pioneers from Russia who acquired 835 acres of land southeast of Tel Aviv and set up a village. Today it is a city of about 140,000 people. The club also featured a pool hall that was popular with teenagers, according to Haim Atiaf, an 18-year-old who told The Associated Press he went there once every two weeks. He said it never had a security guard posted outside. The front windows and walls were blown out and part of the ceiling collapsed. Chunks of glass littered a gas station across the street, more than 120 yards away. At a shop called Baby World on another floor, a large sign showed a child in a cradle. Mr. Michael said the club was popular and open late, and nervous clients had asked the owner more than eight months ago to ask Israeli Arabs not to patronize it. He made 200 shekels on Tuesday night, about $45, he said. "Dedi, the cashier, asked me why I was leaving so early," he recalled. "I said I'd got my money, and when I was a little way down the street I heard the explosion. Now I want to read the paper and find out which of my friends are alive and which are dead." Haim Cohen, a police commander, said the bomber had walked right into the pool hall "and then he exploded." Emergency workers poured into the area along with scores of ambulances, as passers-by gathered to watch. A few chanted "Death to the Arabs." Others were crying. Yehiel Hazan, 53, said he "heard the explosion, and I immediately understood this is a terror attack." Ran Rokach told Israeli radio: "I was driving in the area, and I heard this loud bang. At first I thought this might be gunshots, but when I turned around to see what happened I saw people flying out of the window."