JERUSALEM (Jan. 5)
A possible U.S. strike against Iraq weighed heavily in the equation as the Israeli government considered its response to a deadly terror attack this week in Tel Aviv.
At least 19 people were killed and more than 100 wounded Sunday after two suicide bombers launched an attack near Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon following the attack to convey President Bush’s condolences.
While the United States condemned the attack, Powell also signaled during the call that U.S. officials want Israel to take no action that could threaten Arab support for possible U.S. military action against Iraq, according to Israeli media reports.
Sharon appears to agree with the U.S. concerns because he believes a successful strike against Iraq is in Israel’s interests, according to Israel’s Channel One Television, which quoted sources close to Sharon.
The sources also accused the Palestinians of trying to drag Israel into a “hysterical” reaction that might inflame the region.
Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Al-Aksa Brigade claimed responsibility for Sunday’s double suicide bombing, according to reports issued within hours after the attack.
As it has following earlier attacks, Israel blamed the Palestinian Authority for the latest terror, which prompted some Israeli politicians to revive calls for the expulsion of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is among those backing expulsion, but the assessment among other officials is that such a move could disrupt American efforts to build a broad coalition supporting a war on Iraq, Israel Radio reported.
Reacting to the attack, Sharon told a group of young people visiting Israel as part of the Birthright Israel program that there could be no peace talks with the Palestinians as long as terrorist attacks continue.
“We see again today the severe nature of the things that the State of Israel is facing. Our goal is to stop the brutal terror and to achieve calm and quiet. Only when the brutal terror is stopped, only then we will be able to talk peace,” he said.
“All attempts to reach a cease-fire even today are failing, due to the Palestinian leadership that continues to support, fund and initiate terror.
“The answer to what we see here in Tel Aviv” is aliyah, he added. “We want you to come to Israel. We need you here now, more than ever. When I look at you all, I see all the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people.”
Earlier, before the terrorists struck, Sharon lashed out at his main political rival in the run-up to the Jan. 28 general elections, accusing Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna of “inexperience” and of being ready to advance peace policies with the Palestinians that would endanger the state.
Sharon also said the nation would recognize that Mitzna’s policies are essentially a continuation of the “irresponsible plan” of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, adding that it would be a “drastic mistake” for the nation to return to that plan.
Following Sunday’s suicide bombings, Mitzna rejected Sharon’s attempt to portray him as soft toward the Palestinians.
“At this difficult hour, my heart is with the families and with the wounded,” Mitzna said. “I am determined to change Israel’s security policy to hit mercilessly murderers and those who send them.”
Mitzna also reiterated his support for a security fence, which “will serve as a protective wall between us and terrorism.”
Sunday’s double bombing took place in an area frequented by foreign workers. Last July, two suicide bombers killed five people and wounded more than 40 in the same area.
Restaurants, shops and sidewalks in the area were packed Sunday when the two bombers blew themselves up on parallel streets at around 6:30 p.m.
Witnesses said the blasts were heard for miles.
Police estimated that each of the bombs weighed some 25 pounds each.
After the two explosions, “I just fled,” one witness told Israel Radio. “I saw people thrown all over the place in the bus station outside. Everything was on fire and covered in soot.”
Traffic immediately clogged on roads around the site. Rescue workers appealed to drivers to stay away from the area in order to enable ambulances to evacuate the wounded.
Many of those killed or injured in Sunday’s attack were foreign workers.
Police urged workers who were wounded to seek out medical treatment, assuring that no steps would be taken to deport them. They also appealed to workers to come forward if they had any information that could help with the investigation.
Israel recently implemented a policy against bringing in new foreign workers, and stepped up efforts to deport those in the country illegally.
Special hotlines were set up Sunday to help foreign workers.
Advocates went to hospitals to help the workers, many of whom do not speak Hebrew.
They also went to areas where foreign workers live to see if anyone needed help.