JERUSALEM (Jul. 12)
Hoping to derail the recent Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, Islamist terrorists have struck again at the Jewish state. An Islamic Jihad suicide bomber struck Tuesday outside a mall in the coastal city of Netanya, killing three people, wounding more than 24 and plunging Israelis back into scenes of carnage they hoped they had left behind as the intifada seemed to peter out in recent years.
The 18-year-old bomber’s dismembered head and shoulders lay in the street. Shoppers rushed out of the mall as security forces searched for other terrorists.
With competition at the 17th Maccabiah Games taking place at the Wingate Institute just north of the city, frantic Foreign Ministry officials scoured the crowd for any sign that Jewish athletes from abroad had been hurt.
It could have been worse: An hour earlier, another terrorist tried to detonate a car bomb in the West Bank settlement of Shavei Shomron, but the explosives misfired and only the driver was hurt. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority, scrambling to sustain their tenuous five-month-old cease-fire ahead of Israel’s planned withdrawal next month from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, were equally strenuous in their condemnations of the attacks.
“These were two terrorist attacks — in my estimation coordinated by the rejectionist front, the groups that are opposed to any accord, to any quiet,” Deputy Defense Minister Ya’acov Edri told Israel’s Channel Two television.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke out harshly against Islamic Jihad, which has regularly defied the internal “calm” that Abbas coaxed from Palestinian terrorist groups after he declared a truce with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February.
“We condemn this act of terror,” Abbas told reporters in Ramallah. “No rational Palestinian would do this ahead of Israel’s withdrawal… Those behind this act were behaving like idiots.”
Abbas vowed a crackdown on those responsible. But he also called for a new meeting with Palestinian terrorist chiefs aimed at bolstering the cease-fire.
Israel long has denounced Abbas’ preference for talk over the crackdown that Palestinians pledged under the “road map” peace plan, viewing Abbas’ unwillingness to move against the groups as a recipe for future violence.
The White House condemned the attack and called on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle terrorist organizations.
Israelis reacted to the bombing with a mixture of surprise and resignation. Even after a relatively long lull, attacks hardly send ripples of fear and shock as they once did.
“The situation here went downhill a long time ago,” said Michael Naiman, 25, a security guard at a Tel Aviv supermarket who immigrated to Israel from Belarus. “There is no longer fear here because people have become apathetic out of sheer exhaustion.”
“People are not scared,” said Chava Lehman, a social worker from Netanya who often shops at the mall where the bombing took place. “By tomorrow it will feel like a normal city again. I think people try to surround themselves with a protective shield. There have been many attacks in Netanya, and people continue to move ahead with their lives.”
The 17th Maccabiah Games went ahead as scheduled.
The attack gave “a disturbing glimpse into how Israelis must live their lives and proves the importance of displays of solidarity like the Maccabiah Games,” said Ron Carner, the vice president of Maccabi USA and the Maccabi World Union. “Our hearts and sympathies are with the victims and their families, but in the Jewish spirit of determination, we must go on with our events and our program.”
Yehuda Carmel, an engineer from Netanya, said he wasn’t surprised by the attack.
“Anyone realistic knew it was bound to happen again,” he said. “But I think people are upset; they had begun to return to normal life here. The cafes were full again, and fears were beginning to vanish.”
Roni, a waiter at an espresso bar in Tel Aviv, was bracing for the worst, citing the upcoming Gaza withdrawal — which he opposes — as a sign of bad times ahead.
“I’m scared that chaos will return and we will go backward again,” he said.
But there was no sign that Tuesday’s attacks had thrown the pullout off track.
“We will carry out the disengagement. Its schedule will not be changed one iota,” Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.
But Olmert hinted that Abbas’ actions would determine whether Israeli-Palestinian contacts, which were revived after the death of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, could lead to a permanent peace accord.
“If the Palestinian Authority does not fight terror, we will fight terror,” Olmert said. “It will be a shame if we find we have no real peace partner for the long-term.”
A delegation of the Anti-Defamation League met in Ramallah with Abbas just prior to the Netanya attack.
“He raised the issue of security, says he needs to go further. He said it has only been six months and asked for patience,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director. “He said he’s not satisfied with what he has accomplished in six months.”
But the goodwill generated by the meeting dissipated when the group learned of the Netanya blast, Foxman said. He was especially disappointed by Abbas’ insistence on trying to engage terrorists in dialogue.
“When we walk out, it almost becomes meaningless, because his words with Hamas and Islamic Jihad obviously don’t do anything,” Foxman said.
JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv and Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.