|By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 28, 2002; Page A01
JERUSALEM, March 27 -- A Palestinian suicide bomber slipped through a massive security cordon and set off a powerful explosion at a hotel in central Israel tonight, killing at least 19 people and injuring more than 100 as they sat down to a Seder dinner at the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The thunderous blast, in the coastal resort of Netanya, crumpled cars in the street, shredded the Park Hotel lobby ceiling and tore apart chairs, tables and people. As medics arranged corpses in rows on the sidewalk afterward, blood-smeared victims wandered dazed in the rain, many of them having come just minutes earlier from holiday prayers at synagogues. The bomber, carrying a device packed with shrapnel, triggered the explosion in the dining room just as scores of families were about to begin the annual feast around 7:30 p.m.
Israeli officials and commentators said the bombing, one of the two deadliest in 18 months of violence, could trigger a harsh military response and torpedo U.S.-brokered cease-fire negotiations. The talks, underway for nearly two weeks, have failed to produce a breakthrough or a sharp decline in bloodshed despite the Bush administration"s assertions that the sides are close to a compromise.
"We"ll have to reconsider our whole strategy now," said an Israeli official. "We"ll have to do something else."
President Bush called on the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to do everything in his power to stop such killings. "This callous, this cold-blooded killing, it must stop," he said. "I condemn it in the strongest of terms."
The casualties included men, women, children and the elderly -- a cross-section of Israelis celebrating Passover"s first night, a family holiday marked by religious and secular Jews alike to commemorate the biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
At least 25 of the injured were reported to be in serious condition, including children age 5 and 8. Local medical facilities were so overwhelmed that some of the wounded had to be treated in a hospital cafeteria and a synagogue. Many of the victims, who had been seated, had head and chest wounds. Six hospitals in three cities treated the victims.
"This is not just terror," said Israel"s public security minister, Uzi Landau. "This is a massacre."
The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, asserted responsibility for the attack. It identified the bomber as Abdel Basset Odeh, a Palestinian in his mid-twenties from the city of Tulkarm. Tulkarm, barely 10 miles east of Netanya, lies just beyond the Green Line, the imaginary boundary separating Israel and the West Bank. In the course of the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, more than a half-dozen suicide bombings and other attacks have been carried out in Netanya, and many of the assailants have come from Tulkarm.
The Web site of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting Palestinian security sources, reported that Odeh once worked in hotels in Netanya and elsewhere in Israel. They said Odeh had been on Israel"s wanted list and that Israel had on several occasions warned Palestinian security forces that he planned attacks.
Israeli officials blamed Arafat and his Palestinian Authority for the attack, insisting he has done nothing to arrest militants or rein in Hamas or other militant groups. "That is why they are responsible for this horrible crime," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said. "Israel will be able to bring the perpetrators and planners, who have lost any trace of humanity, to justice."
After the bombing, Arafat telephoned the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, Anthony C. Zinni, who has been trying to coax the two sides toward a truce, and denied he was behind the attack, Israeli television reported.
A statement from the Palestinian Authority condemned the attack, which it said was aimed at the Arab League summit conference underway in Beirut, a peace initiative put forward at the summit by Saudi Arabia, as well as Zinni"s efforts. "In light of the dangerous aims of this operation, the Palestinian Authority will not take lightly the parties that have taken responsibility for it," the statement said. "And it will take harsh measures to bring those responsible to justice."
Palestinians have carried out dozens of suicide bombings since the uprising began, but tonight"s was one of the most devastating. Only an attack on Tel Aviv"s Dolphinarium disco, which killed 22 people last June, has taken more lives.
For days, Israeli security officials have been issuing urgent warnings of imminent terrorist attacks. The warnings have been borne out by 11 apparent attempts to bomb Israeli targets in the past two weeks, including a car bomb that exploded at a police roadblock near Jerusalem"s main shopping mall Tuesday that failed to kill anyone except the car"s two Palestinian occupants.
All Israeli security forces were on their highest states of alert as the Passover holiday approached. Thousands of extra police officers were dispatched to patrol Israeli cities and the line between Israel and the West Bank. Netanya, popular with vacationing Israelis and Jewish tourists, was one of the most heavily policed cities.
Israeli police chief Shlomo Aharonishky said the hotel"s armed security guard, standing outside, either failed to notice or did not stop the bomber. The reception clerk saw the man and asked him what he was doing, the police chief said. When she did, the bomber ran from the lobby into the adjacent split-level dining room, where about 250 people were starting the Seder in the lower section.
"I haven"t yet computed what I"ve seen," said the dining room manager, Maxim Alkayev. "The first seconds were terrible -- blood, screams and body parts."
A Jewish family from Sweden was entering the dining room for the Seder. They were in Israel to celebrate Passover and visit a 20-year-old son, Yoel, studying at a seminary near Tel Aviv. Yoel"s father, Andre Landerlok, immediately noticed the bomber, he told Israeli television. He found the man"s appearance suspicious -- he was alone, while other guests were with families, and wore his hair long in what seemed to be a wig.
The bomber "walked around the lobby for a few minutes with his hands in his pockets looking pretty calm," Landerlok said. Then he entered the dining room and pretended to look for his table. Landerlok called his son toward him, and just then the explosion ripped through the dining room. Everyone in the family was injured.
In recent weeks, as militants have carried out attack after attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians, some Palestinian groups have grown publicly more confident, certain that their ability to inflict pain on Israel -- and withstand it themselves -- means eventual victory.
"Anyone reading an Israeli newspaper can see their suffering," said Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip. Jews, he said, "love life more than any other people, and they prefer not to die.
Miriam Feyerberg, the mayor of Netanya, visited the scene of the bombing, as she has done so often in her city in recent months. When the bomb exploded tonight, she was also attending a Seder -- with mothers of the victims of last summer"s bombing in Tel Aviv.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company