JERUSALEM, June 3 (JTA) Israeli officials have decided to wait and see whether Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat follows through on his call for a cease-fire but they are not optimistic.
After two Cabinet meetings Saturday and Sunday to decide on a reaction to a devastating suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last Friday night, Israeli ministers agreed to withhold a military response and give Arafat a few days to live up to his vow to crack down on terrorists and rein in violence.
Eighteen Israelis were killed and more than 100 wounded when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up outside a nightclub along Tel Aviv’s beachfront promenade last Friday.
Nearly all the victims were young immigrants from the former Soviet Union for whom the disco was a popular hangout.
A 14-year-old girl injured in the blast died early Sunday, bringing the Israeli death toll to 19.
In the wake of the bombing, Israel tightened a closure on the territories and ordered even those Palestinians with entry permits back to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an end to the unilateral cease-fire he announced May 21, but did not immediately order any military reprisals, deciding to see whether international pressure would spur Arafat to rein in Palestinian violence.
Israeli officials were vague on how long it would take Israel to determine if Arafat is more serious about observing this cease-fire than the numerous ones he has disregarded in recent months, but some officials spoke of a testing period of one or two days.
The Palestinian Authority “has established in its territory a coalition of terror, and is attempting to disguise it with words of peace as lip service to the international community, while continuing to incite its people to hatred and violence,” Israel said in a statement issued after the attack. “Israel calls upon the international community to take action that will clarify that terrorism has a political price.”
Sharon was quoted as telling his Security Cabinet on Sunday that the Israel Defense Force made the assessment that Arafat’s call for a cease-fire was merely tactical and did not represent a strategic decision to stop the violence.
On Saturday, after Israel called off its unilateral cease-fire, Arafat called for an immediate and unconditional halt to violence.
“We are prepared to act in order to invest the maximum efforts possible to stop the bloodshed of our people and of the Israeli people,” Arafat said at a news conference in Ramallah.
Some Israeli commentators were skeptical, however, noting that Arafat also said the Palestinian Authority already has been exerting maximum effort until now.
A day later, in any case, 14 Palestinian groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the 12 factions that make up Arafat’s PLO pledged that they have a right to continue their uprising against Israel.
The Tel Aviv bombing drew widespread international condemnation Officials from the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union were among those condemning the attack.
Following Arafat’s vow to pursue peace, Sharon told U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that Israel would judge Arafat by his deeds, not his words.
A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said Sharon told Powell in a weekend phone conversation that Arafat had made similar pronouncements in the past when he feared he would be harmed in response to “terrible deeds he committed.”
Sharon told Powell that Israel expects Arafat to fulfill three conditions: end incitement, stop terror attacks and arrest all terrorists previously released by the Palestinian Authority.
Powell canceled a trip to Costa Rica in order to remain involved in attempts to calm the situation. He spoke by phone with Sharon and Arafat several times over the weekend.
On Sunday, Powell said this is the time for Arafat to stop Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Speaking on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” Powell also said he fears that a retaliatory strike by Israel in response to last Friday’s suicide bombing could plunge the region into “an abyss that we might not be able to get out of.”
As funerals were held Sunday for victims of the bombing, their families, friends and survivors of the attack struggled to cope with the tragedy.
The attack occurred around 11:40 last Friday night as groups of teen- agers waited in line for the doors to open at the Dolphin Disco, a nightclub located at the former site of an aquarium. The disco was known for throwing parties every weekend attended by youths from the former Soviet Union.
The terrorist stood among a group of young people and detonated the bomb strapped to his body. The bomb had been packed with screws, bolts and ball bearings, increasing its deadly impact.
“Suddenly, they flew up in the air, everyone together, before my eyes,” recalled Avi Mizrahi, owner of the Dolphin club. “I looked around and saw my security guards bleeding, and all these children on the ground.
“I looked at myself and saw I wasn’t hurt, but my shirt was full of blood. I pulled it off and cut it up into strips and started making tourniquets.”
Shai Har-Meshi, owner of a kiosk near the site of the bombing, described the scene before and after the blast.
“Dozens of young boys were sitting around, laughing, talking on [cell] phones, checking out girls. Within a second, the place turned into hell. Body parts flew in all directions. There were screams,” he told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.
“There’s a jumble of dead children!” a passerby was quoted as screaming.
On Saturday, street crews worked to wash off the remnants of blood from the site of the bombing, while police pushed back angry Jewish demonstrators who threw rocks and bricks at the nearby Hassan Bek mosque.
As the day wore on, there was a tense standoff as Muslim worshipers inside the mosque threw rocks back.
The backgrounds of the bombing victims gave added poignancy to the attack.
Most of the victims were teen-age immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and their personal stories resonated with the experiences of young people adjusting to a new home and culture.
“They always accused us that the ‘Russian discotheques’ are a differentiating factor in Israeli society. On Friday, the Russian discotheque turned into a unifying factor in society. Suddenly, we’re all Israelis,” the daily Ha’aretz quoted one student, Igor Lautman, as saying.
The dead included two sisters, who are survived by a younger brother and their mother; a young girl who immigrated with her father to Israel when she was three years old; and an immigrant soldier whose family is abroad.
A Tel Aviv high school that draws many immigrants from the former Soviet Union lost five of its students and one graduate in the bombing.
Russian-speaking social workers tried to comfort the survivors, their families and friends.
Volunteers from the Israel Crisis Management Center also known by its Hebrew acronym Sela worked to help victims who don’t have a support network in Israel.
TIMELINE OF RECENT PALESTINIAN TERROR ATTACKS
Following is a timeline of major attacks that Palestinian terrorists carried out after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared a unilateral cease- fire on May 21. It does not include numerous attacks of lesser scope during the same period. Sharon rescinded the ceasefire declaration on Saturday, a day after a deadly suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco, but has yet to order any military retaliation.
May 23 An Israeli motorist is killed and another wounded by Palestinian gunfire near the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
May 25 A car bomb explodes near the Hadera bus station. At least 39 people are injured in that blast, and the two suicide bombers are killed. Another suicide bombing takes place outside an Israeli army post in the Gaza Strip, killing only the perpetrator.
May 27 Two car bombings take place in the heart of western Jerusalem. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claims responsibility for the first blast, which explodes shortly after midnight, causing no injuries. The second car bombing, coming hours before the start of the Shavuot holiday, is packed with mortar shells. The Islamic Jihad terror group claims responsibility for the blast, which injures some 30 people.
May 29 Three Israelis are killed in separate shooting attacks in the West Bank. Gilead Zar, a security guard for a West Bank settlement, is killed in a roadside ambush near Nablus, three months after he was seriously wounded in another shooting incident. Later that day, on the way to Zar’s funeral, a resident of the settlement of Efrat Sarah Blaustein, 53, an immigrant from the United States is killed when shots are fired at her car. Her husband, Norman, is slightly wounded, and a son, Sammy, is seriously wounded with three bullets in his back. Another person in the car, Esther Alva, 20, dies several hours after the attack. Terrorists also open fire on the Zar funeral procession.
May 30 A car bomb explodes outside a high school in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, injuring six people. Classes are not in session at the time of the explosion.
May 31 An Israeli settler is killed by Palestinian gunmen while driving near the West Bank city of Tulkarm. Zvi Shelef, 63, dies of massive head wounds. The attack takes place hours after Israeli and Palestinian security officials meet for a second time in two days but fail to find a way to end the violence.
June 1 A suicide bomber kills 19 Israelis and wounds more than 90 at a Tel Aviv beachside disco.