TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Israel is blaming Iran and Syria for funding and planning the suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv that wounded 20, Israeli officials said Friday.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the Thursday afternoon bombing, which wrecked a fast-food restaurant in a rundown part of Tel Aviv’s center.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party is facing a stiff challenge from Hamas, the other Islamic movement, condemned the attack as an attempt to sabotage the Jan. 25 election.
In a high-level security meeting to assess a response, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Syria planned the attack and Iran funded it, but Israel would not hit back at the Palestinians, according to security officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give details to the media.
Mofaz said Israel would tighten security around Nablus, where the bomber lived, and target Islamic Jihad militants in raids.
Mofaz cited “clear evidence” about Syrian and Iranian involvement, the officials said, and would pass the evidence on to the U.S. and Europe.
The explosion wrecked “The Mayor’s Shwarma,” a fast-food restaurant specializing in grilled meat sandwiches, in a rundown part of downtown Tel Aviv, an area hit several times before by Palestinian attackers.
The bomber, who witnesses said pretended to be a peddler selling disposable razors, walked into the restaurant and blew himself up, even though most of the customers were sitting at sidewalk tables, relatively far from the bomber, said police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.
Twenty people were wounded, one seriously, and the 22-year-old bomber was killed. “I ran and saw the terrorist in two pieces,” said Shlomo Eliav, 49, who owns a kiosk around the corner and has experienced several attacks. “I’m sick of this. I’m thinking of moving” to another part of town, he said.
This was the seventh suicide bombing aimed at Israelis since Palestinian militants declared an unofficial truce in February 2005. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for all, six in Israel and one at a West Bank army checkpoint. Islamic Jihad identified the assailant as 22-year-old Sami Abdel Hafez Antar from the West Bank city of Nablus. The militant group released a video made by the bomber before the attack. He said he was “offering himself to avenge the blood of martyrs.”
Brandishing a rifle and posing before a black Islamic Jihad flag, he said he carried out the bombing in response to Israeli attacks on civilians and militants.
At the family home, a four-story building in Nablus, Antar’s mother was crying hysterically and could not talk. His brother, Sameh, 32, appeared puzzled. “I can’t say anything about those who sent him,” Sameh told the AP. “All I can say is that my brother had everything. It seemed he wanted martyrdom, and he got what he wanted.”
The bombing came two days after Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was interested in talks toward a peace treaty with the Palestinians, on condition that they dismantle violent groups as stipulated in the internationally backed “road map” peace plan.
Olmert is running for prime minister in March 28 elections as Ariel Sharon’s successor. Sharon, felled by a massive stroke Jan. 4, is still in a coma and is not expected to recover.
Sharon is believed to have favored a long-term interim arrangement to test Palestinian intentions, and has been skeptical of Abbas’ ability to rein in militants.
Sharon founded his new centrist party, Kadima, in November, bolting Likud because of its opposition to his peace moves. Likud reinforced its hawkish stand by choosing Benjamin Netanyahu, a former premier, as its leader.
Polls show Olmert and Kadima far ahead, with Likud losing most of its strength, but attacks like Thursday’s could turn that around, especially with Sharon sidelined.
However, Raanan Gissin, a senior Israeli official, said Israelis have moved solidly to the moderate center now, advocating withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
“One terrorist attack or two terrorist attacks are not going to sway them,” Gissin said. Gissin blamed inaction by Abbas’ security forces for the Tel Aviv attack, charging that militant groups have “moved into the void.”
Abbas harshly condemned the bombing, which countered his efforts to control the militants by bringing them into the power structure. Hamas, the larger of the two Islamic groups, is running candidates for parliament and has mostly stopped attacks against Israel over the past year, but Islamic Jihad persists.
Internal unrest threatens to disrupt the election, further evidence of Abbas’ weakness. “This is sabotage and aimed at sabotaging the elections, not only the elections, but also the security of Palestinians,” Abbas told reporters at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The culprits must be punished.”
In other violence, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who was about to throw a firebomb on a highway in the southern West Bank late Thursday, Palestinians and military officials said.