Back-To-Back Blasts Rock Tel Aviv

Two Palestinians blew themselves up in a central Tel Aviv area crowded with foreign workers, killing 22 bystanders and wounding more than 100. Hours later, Israeli attack helicopters fired four missiles at a target in Gaza City.
Israeli medics rush a wounded man to an ambulance after a double suicide bomber attack in Tel Aviv, Israel Sunday. (AP) Israelis rush a wounded woman to an ambulance after a double suicide bomber attack in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday. (AP)
JERUSALEM, Jan. 5, 2003
(CBS) Two Palestinian suicide bombers set off back-to-back blasts Sunday in a central Tel Aviv area crowded with foreign workers, killing 22 bystanders and wounding more than 100 in the bloodiest attack in six months.

Hours later, Israeli attack helicopters fired four missiles at a target in Gaza City, witnesses said.  It was not immediately clear what the target was, and there was no report of casualties.

The twin explosions came just three weeks before Israel's Jan. 28 general election and were claimed by rival groups the Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called top ministers in for security consultations an hour before the missile attack.  The meeting was still in progress when the helicopters struck.

Israel responded to two similar attacks in June Jerusalem bus bombings that left 26 dead by reoccupying most West Bank towns.

"There is no doubt we will continue in our present policy to relentlessly pursue the terrorists," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.  "Either we will bring them to justice, or we will bring justice to them."

But with Israeli troops still in control of Palestinian population centers, Israel's range of additional responses is limited, particularly as the United States considers a possible strike against Iraq and wants to avoid friction with the Arab world over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A renewed spate of terror attacks could boost support for hardline parties, including Sharon's Likud, in the upcoming election. The Palestinian Authority condemned Sunday's attack.

The blasts were a setback to Egypt's efforts to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to halt attacks on Israeli civilians, at least until after the elections.  The bombings also ended a period of relative calm.  Previously the last bombing inside Israel was Nov. 21, when 11 bus passengers were killed in Jerusalem.

Sunday's attacks occurred at about 6:30 p.m. in a pedestrian area filled with working class shops and restaurants near Tel Aviv's defunct central bus station.  Both bombers had explosives strapped to their bodies.

One blew himself up near a fast-food restaurant called "McChina."  The explosion ripped through the outdoor restaurant, overturning wooden picnic tables and showering glass on the sidewalk.

Seconds later, the other bomber blew himself up in a commercial area about 100 yards away.

Many victims were foreign workers, thousands of whom live in the area.  Several of the wounded were treated on the sidewalk.

"I saw a man without a leg. I saw horrible things, people without legs, without arms. I saw fingers," a witness who gave only his first name, Tomer, told Channel Two television.

Yitzhak Teva, a barber who was slightly injured, said he was cutting hair when the blast went off.  "Half the wall fell on me and I was covered in broken glass," Teva said.  "I shut the shop and then there was the next explosion."

Traffic jams in the narrow alleys around the old bus station hampered the evacuation of the wounded.  Bystanders helped remove the injured with improvised means, using doors torn from their hinges as makeshift stretchers.

In broadcast appeals, police told illegal workers they had nothing to fear if they sought treatment or checked on friends.

"Please don't be afraid to go to one of the Israeli hospitals in Tel Aviv, even if you are working illegally," one announcement said.

President Bush was informed about the bombing by Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, who accompanied him home to Washington from Texas aboard Air Force One, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

"He condemns this in the strongest possible terms, " Buchan said.  "There are those who want to derail the peace process, but the president will not be deterred. Innocent people have a right to live in safety."

In the past 27 months of fighting, Palestinian militias have carried out scores of bombings in Israel, and Sharon has held Arafat responsible by virtue of inaction.  Palestinians say Israel's military strikes have rendered the Palestinian security services helpless.

A Palestinian Authority statement condemned the attack and pledged "to follow all those who planned and were behind these attacks.  Such attacks against civilians are against the Palestinian national interest and violate all decisions taken by the Palestinian Authority (and) must be stopped."

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, as did the Al Aqsa group, naming the bombers as Sami Nuri and Burak Khelfa from Nablus.

Egypt and Fatah have been trying to persuade Islamic Jihad and the larger Hamas to halt attacks on civilians in Israel.  Talks in Cairo were to resume next week, but it was not clear if they would after Sunday's attacks.  Israel TV said Egypt was planning to issue an ultimatum to Hamas to comply.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas spokesman, said "resistance will continue."  The Israelis, he said, "are killing us day and night, so they should pay the price of their crimes."

Since violence erupted in September 2000, 2,029 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 713 on the Israeli side.

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