JERUSALEM (Sep. 4)
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will go ahead with her trip to the Middle East despite a triple terror bombing here.
At least seven people were killed Thursday, including three suspected bombers, and more than 180 wounded in the near-simultaneous explosions that rocked Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in the heart of the capital.
The blasts occurred less than a week before Albright’s scheduled arrival and little more than a month after 15 Israelis were killed in a July 30 twin suicide bombing at the nearby Mahane Yehuda market.
The military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for the latest attack and vowed to carry out more attacks if its members held in Israeli jails were not released by Sept. 14.
Jerusalem Police Chief Yair Yitzhaki said that injuries on three of the bodies showed “signs of being very close to the impact, which leads us to believe that they were the bombers.”
Israeli security officials were quoted Thursday night as saying that at least one of the bombers was disguised as a woman.
Security officials said the bombs used in the blasts appeared to have been nearly identical to those in the Mahane Yehuda bombing.
The way in which the bombers positioned themselves within sight of each other and detonated their explosives at a pre-arranged signal also mirrored the July bombing.
Israeli investigators have yet to positively conclude who was responsible for the July attack.
Israel’s Channel Two news, quoting a senior security source, said the nails and screws used in the two terrorist attacks were identical and that officials had reason to believe the bombs were assembled in the Gaza Strip.
President Clinton, who condemned the bombings as an “outrageous and inhumane act,” said Albright would stress the need for security when she makes her first visit to the region as America’s top diplomat.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials condemned the attack.
Israeli officials holding talks this week in Washington prior to Albright’s trip informed their American counterparts that the negotiations could not move forward unless Arafat cracked down on Islamic militants — a point underscored by Thursday’s blasts.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Thursday that Israel would crack down on terrorists if the Palestinians did not do so themselves.
“We are reiterating that the Palestinian Authority is not fighting terrorism, is not dismantling their infrastructure. If someone needed to be reminded of this, they were — in blood,” Netanyahu said during a visit to the wounded at Jerusalem’s Sha’are Zedek Hospital.
Referring to Arafat’s meetings last month with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders for “national unity” talks, Netanyahu said Arafat was “kissing and hugging Hamas instead of fighting them.
“The Palestinian Authority is signaling to [Hamas] that they can hurt us. We are not going to continue in this way.”
Netanyahu met with the heads of the security establishment Thursday night and planned to convene the Inner Security Cabinet on Friday to discuss Israel’s next steps.
President Ezer Weizman called on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to use his influence to press Arafat to take action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israel resealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip immediately after the blasts.
Earlier this week, Israel had partially lifted the closure it imposed on the West Bank and Gaza after the July 30 attack.
Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan linked the partial easing of the closure with the latest attack.
“Obviously, the lifting of the closure could have had something to do with the ability of the bombers to do what they did,” Bar-Illan told Israel Radio.
The three loud explosions occurred one after another around 3:15 p.m. The blasts took place about halfway up the pedestrian mall, which was crowded with shoppers and people sitting at cafes.
The force of the blasts sent debris and body parts flying in all directions. The explosions also caused extensive damage to property, shattering windows and doors, and scattering furniture from restaurants in all directions.
Many of those at the pedestrian mall were tourists.
At least two Americans were among the injured, according to news reports – – Abie Mendelson, 18, of Los Angeles, and Gregg Salzman, 25, of East Brunswick, N.J.
Police and rescue crews arrived at the site almost immediately after the blasts and began evacuating the wounded. Ambulances shuttled the injured to Jerusalem hospitals.
Doctors said most of the victims suffered light to moderate injuries. One person was listed in critical condition; eight were in serious condition.
Authorities said that the fact that the explosions occurred in an open area limited the extent of the casualties.
Israeli, Palestinian and American security officials were scheduled to meet Thursday night to discuss the bombings.