Bombing at Tel Aviv Nightclub Strains Israeli-palestinian Cease-fire

Israeli officials talked tough in response to a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv nightclub, but they resisted declaring an end to a cease-fire. Last Friday night’s attack on the Stage killed four people and wounded more than 50, turning the usually raucous Tel Aviv beachfront promenade into a nightmare of blood and debris.

“Quiet — Blown Apart,” was the headline in Israel’s leading daily Yediot Achronot. That “quiet” was the calming of violence ushered in by the Feb. 8 cease-fire declared by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“While the State of Israel seeks to advance toward an accord with the Palestinians, there will be no diplomatic progress — I repeat, no diplomatic progress — until the Palestinians take robust action to wipe out the terror groups and their infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority’s territory,” Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday.

Israel’s restraint stemmed, in part, from the outrage shown by the Palestinian Authority at an attack whose origins were apparently abroad.

The bomber was a 21-year-old Palestinian from the city of Tulkarm, acting in the name of Islamic Jihad.

But the terrorist group’s own leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip denied any involvement in the bombing, which violated their truce talks with Abbas. Then came a claim from Islamic Jihad’s Beirut branch, a proxy of its Damascus headquarters.

“Syria continues to give amnesty to terror groups and encourages them to carry out attacks, which endangers the peace process with the Palestinians and regional stability,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said after meeting with security chiefs.

Syria denied any involvement in the attack.

In apparent agreement with Mofaz, Abbas blamed a “third side” for the bombing and vowed a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority.

“We will bring them to justice. We will not allow anyone to sabotage the ambitions of our people. Those who carried out the attack are terrorists,” Abbas told reporters. “There is a third party which wants to sabotage” the peace process.

Despite Abbas’ strong language — the word “terrorists” is rare in Palestinian rhetoric — Sharon hinted that his patience was limited.

“Recently, the State of Israel has shown restraint in order to facilitate progress,” he said. “But it is clear that if the Palestinians do not begin to take robust action against terrorism, Israel will be compelled to step up military activity that is designed to protect the lives of Israeli citizens.”

The attack could also hinder any additional release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel recently released 500 of them and has said it would free another 400, but Israeli Cabinet minister Tzipi Livni told Palestinian officials that Israel did not want another meeting of the joint committee that sets the criteria for releases.

President Bush reacted strongly to the bombing as well. “Such brutal attacks that kill and wound innocent Israelis cannot be tolerated by the Israeli people,” he said.

“Nor should they be tolerated by the Palestinian people, for such attacks undermine their hopes for a better future.”

Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ze’ev Boim, said Israel could resume its assassinations of Islamic Jihad leaders — a move that most Palestinians would view as a violation of the truce — or even strike Syria, as it did when it bombed a terrorist training base outside Damascus in October 2003 in response to a Palestinian suicide attack.

“Action by us against Syria is certainly a possibility,” Boim told Israel Radio. If Syrian’s president, Bashar Assad “needs another hint from us, then he will get it, of course.”

For the victims of the attack, this was cold comfort.

Among the dead were three members of a close-knit Israel Defense Forces reserve combat unit and the fiancee of another member of the unit.

Yael Orbach, a 28-year-old acting student, was to have been married in three weeks — she had planned to hand out wedding invitations that evening. Her fiance, Ofir Gonen, was seriously wounded.

“I call on these people and the army, in tears and with full consciousness, to avenge Yael Orbach,” her father, Yisrael, told Army Radio on Sunday. “If they do not avenge this righteous person, I will.”

Three of Gonen’s comrades — Yitzhak Buzaglo, Arik Nagar and Ronen Reuvenon — were killed. Buzaglo’s wife, Linda, remains in critical condition. The Buzaglos have two young children.

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