|By Karin Laub
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, March 28, 2002; 8:08 AM
JERUSALEM -- Israel said Thursday it would exercise its right to self defense, but stopped short of formally abandoning U.S.-backed truce efforts following a Palestinian suicide bombing in a hotel banquet hall. It killed 20 diners and wounded more than 130 during a festive Passover Seder, the ritual meal ushering in the weeklong Jewish holiday.
It was one of the deadliest Palestinian attacks in 18 months of fighting. Several Cabinet ministers called for massive retaliation, including ousting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, toppling his government and reconquering large parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Despite the new bloodshed, U.S. truce envoy Anthony Zinni was to remain in the region for now, U.S. Embassy officials said. Zinni had aborted two previous visits because of spiraling violence.
The Palestinian Authority said it "strongly condemned" Wednesday night"s bombing in the Mediterranean resort of Netanya, carried out by a member of the Islamic militant Hamas group. Arafat met with his security chiefs and ordered the arrests of key militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs" Brigade, a militia linked to his Fatah movement.
However, the militias have become increasingly powerful in recent months, and many of their leaders were in hiding Thursday. Local security officials said they received lists of suspects to be arrested, but that no efforts had been made yet to find the wanted men. Nasser Awais, leader of the Al Aqsa militia in the West Bank, said he had no plans to surrender to Palestinian police.
Israel said Arafat has done nothing to prevent terror attacks, and held him responsible for what government spokesman Gideon Meir called a "Passover massacre." Secretary of State Colin Powell demanded that the Palestinian leader deliver a televised anti-terror speech to his people.
In Wednesday"s attack, 25-year-old Abdel Baset Odeh, a Hamas member, walked into the Park Hotel in Netanya at about 7:15 p.m., just as about 250 guests dressed in their holiday best were sitting down in the banquet hall for the Passover Seder.
Odeh knew the area well; before he became wanted by Israel, he had worked in several Netanya hotels, Palestinian security officials said. The attacker got past an armed security guard posted in the lobby, walked into the banquet hall and detonated explosives strapped to his body that were packed with nails and ball bearings for greater deadliness.
The blast blew out windows and walls, overturned tables and cut electricity, plunging the hotel into eerie darkness. "In the first few seconds, I couldn"t comprehend it ... when you see the people, the blood, the screams," said Maxim Alkayef, manager of the dining hall.
History teacher Nechama Donenhirsch, 52, said that as she and her family fled the hall, they saw a girl, about 10 to 12 years old, lying dead on the ground, her eyes wide open as if in surprise.
Another guest, Yitzhak, 70, who did not give his last name, said he called out to a wounded woman and offered to help her get up. "How can you help me?" he recalled her saying. "I don"t have any legs."
Some of the wounded staggered out of the darkened lobby, while others were carried out on stretchers, including a young boy with an oxygen mask pressed to his face. Alkayef said many of the guests were elderly, and that several tourists, including two women from Sweden, were in the hall.
In all, 20 guests and the bomber were killed. Police said a Swedish woman and several other European tourists were among those killed, but by Thursday morning, only about half the victims had been identified. Eighty-one people remained hospitalized, including 23 in serious condition.
Sweden"s foreign ministry said the Swedish victim was a 78- or 79-year-old woman from Stockholm, and Foreign Minister Anna Lindh condemned the bombing.
"The Palestinian leadership, yes the entire Palestinian society must break the grotesque logic that the suicide bombers follow," Lindh said in a statement. "It only leads to even greater losses for the Palestinian people and further marginalizes the influence of those in Israel who want to leave in peace with their neighbors."
In the deadliest Palestinian attack since violence broke out in September 2000, 22 young Israelis were killed when a Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up at a Tel Aviv disco last June.
As Israel mulled its response to the bombing, Arab leaders at a summit in Beirut, Lebanon agreed on a unified new stand toward Israel, offering "normal relations" in exchange for its withdrawal from the territories it seized occupied in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, said the Arab offer was "a very interesting development, something that should be pursued." Gissin said Arab states should now enter into direct negotiations with Israel, perhaps at a follow-up conference to the Beirut gathering.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer met with army commanders early Thursday to weigh a possible Israeli response to the Netanya bombing. Zinni"s current mission survived two suicide bombings last week, but Israel has said it could not tolerate further attacks on civilians.
Arieh Mekel, a Foreign Ministry official, would not say what action Israel would take. "Our basic policy has not changed," Mekel said. "We want peace. We want a cease-fire, but we certainly have a right to self-defense. We certainly will not sit back and wait for the next suicide bomber."
In anticipation of a possible Israeli military strike, Palestinian government offices were evacuated throughout the West Bank on Thursday, and Palestinians bought food and emergency supplies, including candles, in anticipation of an extended Israeli siege.
Israeli troops tightened blockades of Palestinian towns. In Ramallah, Arafat"s West Bank headquarters, U.N. officials said foreign staffers were asked to leave the city as a precaution and worried Palestinian parents took their children home early from school.
The Netanya bombing was widely seen as a watershed because of its deadliness and timing. "They attacked innocent Israelis on one of the most sacred nights to Jewish people, Passover," said Meir, the Israeli government spokesman. With public outrage reaching an unprecedented level, it appeared increasingly difficult for Sharon to accede to U.S. calls for restraint.
Earlier this week, key Cabinet ministers discussed various options in the event cease-fire talks collapsed, including a large-scale military operation.
Powell urged Arafat to go on television and demand an end to attacks against Israelis. The attacks endanger any negotiations toward a Palestinian state, Powell said. "This sort of activity and the tolerance of this sort of activity will destroy the very vision the Palestinian Authority stands for and Chairman Arafat says he"s committed to," he said.
© 2002 The Associated Press