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In Possible Attempt at Chemical Attack, Palestinian Bombers Strike at Israeli Port

March 15, 2004
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With this week’s terrorist bombings, Hamas may have hoped to see a toxic cloud hanging over the Israeli city of Ashdod — the embodiment of a new, higher level of terrorism for the anti-Israel group.

Although luck and security spared Israel a chemical cataclysm, Sunday’s double suicide bombing at Israel’s second- largest port devastated scores of families, killing at least 10 people. The attack wounded at least 16, and raised alarm in the Israeli government.

The two teenage bombers came from the Gaza Strip, and their attack marked the first successful terrorist strike launched by Palestinian infiltrators from the fenced-in strip during the current intifada. The bombers broke through tight Israeli security.

“This comes to show that resistance will continue until the enemy leaves all of occupied Palestinian land,” said Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whose group is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.

The Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed joint responsibility for the attacks along with Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority — whose prime minister, Ahmed Qurei was slated to meet this week for the first time with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — issued its customary condemnation of the attack.

Despite the condemnation, Israel called off the planned summit, which was to occur Tuesday.

“We are not looking for a photo opportunity,” said Sharon’s spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin. “We want a real undertaking from the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism.”

Israeli security sources said the bombers, carrying sophisticated plastic explosives, were headed for the port’s tankers of ammonium and bromine. If ignited, the chemicals would have thrown up a lethal cloud over Ashdod one mile in radius.

As it happened, the first bomber, who had worked nearby as a construction worker, apparently got cold feet.

“He stopped to ask for a glass of water, and one of the guys recognized him as a local laborer. As he was led away, he blew up,” a stevedore told reporters.

Seconds after the first explosion, which tore apart a warehouse for heavy machinery, the bomber’s partner hit his detonator outside the port gate.

The bombs the terrorists used were considered to be more powerful than those used in previous suicide bombings, said Israel’s Southern region police chief, Moshe Karadi.

The double blast, which threw body parts and mangled metal in the air, sent shock waves through a coastal town that has been largely untouched by more than three years of intifada, despite its proximity to Gaza.

Indeed, authorities assumed the blasts were work accidents until discovering two distinct bomb sites and quickly assessing the situation.

The bombers, both of whom died in their attacks, were identified as 18-year-olds from the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

The only other terrorist attack within Israel to have emanated from Gaza during the current intifada was a suicide bombing by two Britons of Pakistani descent at Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv nightclub, in April 2003.

Those terrorists, posing as tourists who had traveled through Gaza, used the same plastic explosives as Sunday’s bombers, Israeli security sources said.

Hezbollah is the main suspect in supplying the rare explosives, probably through tunnels linking the southern Gaza city of Rafah to nearby Egypt.

“This was meant to be a strategic, mega-terror strike. Now we have to review our own strategy,” a Jerusalem official said, referring to efforts to discover how the two Palestinians got through the Gaza security fence.

Israel Defense Forces officials believe that the terrorists got to Ashdod from Gaza. They also are considering the possibility that the pair burrowed into Egypt by way of underground tunnels from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, then snuck into Israel’s Negev Desert in a border area that is not secured by a fence.

“They found a weak point and they exploited it,” Israeli Cabinet minister Yosef Paritzky said of Sunday’s assailants.

“A port, by nature, is a very busy place,” he said. “There are many people coming and going. It is impossible to seal the entire country hermetically.”

The investigation into this bombing could have ramifications for the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank to keep out terrorist infiltrators. Palestinians, who say the fence is a land grab, say such an effort is futile.

Amid the investigation after Sunday’s bombings, a Jerusalem official said, “What we learn from this incident will have to be implemented everywhere in the territories — and fast.”

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