TEL AVIV, AP- A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a fast-food restaurant in a bustling commercial area of Tel Aviv during the Passover holiday Monday, killing eight other people and wounding at least 49, police said. Israeli Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert said Israel would respond “as necessary.”
“We shall, of course, continue to use all means at our disposal to prevent every other attempt,” he said.
Israeli defense chiefs were to consult later Monday, but security officials said a possible reoccupation of Gaza, the base of the new Hamas government, was not being considered.
The White House strongly condemned the attack, calling it “a despicable act of terror for which there is no excuse or justification.”
A security guard posted outside the restaurant, the target of a suicide bombing in January, prevented Monday’s bomber from entering the building, police said.
It was the first suicide attack in Israel since the Hamas militant group took over the Palestinian government 2 1/2 weeks ago. Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks, has largely observed a cease-fire since February 2005.
The Islamic Jihad militant group, which is believed to be funded in part by Iran and refuses to observe a cease-fire, claimed responsibility in a telephone call to The Associated Press. The group identified the bomber as Sami Salim Mohammed Hammed, from the West Bank town of Jenin.
Islamic Jihad later released a video showing Hammed reading a statement saying the bombing was dedicated to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
“There are many other bombers on the way,” he said. Hammed, appearing to be in his mid to late teens, was dressed in black and wore a headband with yellow Quranic verses.
Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for all six of the previous suicide attacks inside Israel since the cease-fire was declared. On Sunday, the group pledged to carry out more attacks.
Hamas leaders called the bombing a legitimate response to Israeli “aggression” — a sharp departure from the previous Palestinian leadership’s immediate condemnations of such attacks.
“We think that this operation … is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people,” said Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry.
Earlier, Moussa abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader abroad, told Al-Jazeera television that “the Israeli side must feel what the Palestinian feels, and the Palestinian defends himself as much as he can.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah Party, condemned the bombing, calling it a “terrorist attack.”
The bomber struck at about 1:40 p.m. at “The Mayor’s Felafel” restaurant, which was targeted in a Jan. 19 attack that wounded 20 people. The restaurant is in the bustling Neve Shaanan neighborhood near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, which was crowded with holiday travelers.
Police said the restaurant hired a security guard after the earlier bombing, and that guard apparently was injured in Monday’s blast.
A witness, Moussa al Zidat, said the guard asked the apparent bomber to open his bag.
“I saw a young man starting to open his bag. The guard begins opening the bag, and then I heard a boom.”
Witness Israel Yaakov said the blast killed a woman standing near her husband and children.
“The father was traumatized. He went into shock. He ran to the children to gather them up and the children were screaming, ‘Mom! Mom!’ and she wasn’t answering, she was dead already … it’s a shocking scene,” Yaakov said.
Another witness, 62-year-old Sonya Levy, said she had just finished shopping when the blast occurred.
“I was about to get into my car, and boom! There was an explosion. A bit of human flesh landed on my car and I started to scream,” she said.
Her car was 50 yards from the explosion and its windshield was smeared with blood.
Olmert said the blast came as no surprise.
“It’s not something that we didn’t fear would happen, we know the terrorist organizations groups continue at every moment to look for opportunities to carry out attacks inside Israel,” he said. “The security forces are deployed in every corner, every place, but we also know that there is no way we can always prevent such attacks, under all circumstances, in every case.”
Police said nine people, including the bomber, were killed. Medics said nine of the injured were in serious condition.
The wounded were treated on sidewalks. One man was lying on his side, his shirt pushed up and his back covered by bandages. A bleeding woman was wheeled away on a stretcher. A dazed-looking man walked near the site, his white T-shirt splattered with blood.
The blast shattered the windshields of cars, and blew out the windows of nearby buildings. The ground was covered with glass shards and blood. The sign of the restaurant’s building was blown away. Bottles and other debris were scattered up to 25 yards from the site of the blast.
While rescue crews tended to the wounded, a helicopter hovered overhead and a marksman took position on the roof of the targeted building.
Later, Israeli police stopped a car carrying three Palestinians suspected of aiding the bomber, officials said. The car, identified by witnesses at the scene of the attack, was stopped at a checkpoint on a highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, police said.
Authorities suspected the vehicle was “directly connected” to the attack, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The car’s three occupants were detained for questioning, and a bomb squad was examining the vehicle.
It was the second major Passover bombing in four years. In 2002, a Palestinian bomber blew himself up at a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya, killing 29 people. That attack triggered a major Israeli military offensive.
Palestinian militants have carried out nine suicide attacks in Israel and the West Bank since a Feb. 8, 2005, truce declaration. All but one attack have been carried out by Islamic Jihad.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said Israel held Hamas ultimately responsible for such attacks because it is “giving support to all the other terrorist organizations.”
“From our point of view it doesn’t matter if it comes from Al Aqsa, Islamic Jihad or Hamas. They all come out of the same school of terrorism led by Hamas,” he said.