Suicide Bomber Kills Nine in Tel Aviv

A Palestinian suicide bomber strikes in the heart of Tel Aviv, killing nine people and wounding more than 50. Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack. A Hamas official called it "self defense."

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

It is the deadliest attack in Israel in more than a year. In Tel Aviv today, a 21-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at an outdoor sandwich shop. He killed nine people, and he injured more than 50. It is the first suicide bombing since Hamas took over control of the Palestinian government. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, but a Hamas official called it self-defense.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

The bomber struck a falafel shop in the pedestrian marketplace near the city's central bus station. The area's outdoor vegetable, sandwich and retail shops were packed with shoppers and lunch-goers, many of whom were off work for the weeklong Passover holiday.

Mr. YOSI LANDAU (ph) (Medical and body recovery volunteer, Tel Aviv): There were a lot of injured people asking and begging for help, seriously injured. We tried to help them.

WESTERVELT: Thirty-seven-year-old Yosi Landau, a veteran medical and body recovery volunteer, arrived on the scene a few minutes after the bombing. Standing near the shop where pieces of twisted metal dangled amid scattered chairs, clothes, glass and blood, Landau says he moved quickly to help the injured and recover the dead.

Mr. LANDAU: And they were in really bad, bad shape. That means it was a powerful explosion if the bodies and everything was in bad shape.

WESTERVELT: The market in this working class neighborhood has been hit many times over the years. In fact, this same sandwich shop, called The Mayor's Falafel, was hit by a suicide bomber in January in an attack that killed only the bomber. Afterwards, the owner beefed up security and added a guard. Today that guard was killed as he tried to stop the bomber.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. The group said the bomber was 21-year-old Sami Hamad from the West Bank city of Jenin. In a video released by the group, Hamad said the attack was dedicated to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and he said “there are many other bombers on the way.”

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas denounced the attack as terrorism and called it harmful to the Palestinian national interest. But a spokesman for the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Sami Abu Zuhri, said it was self-defense and “a natural result of the continued Israeli crimes against our people.” The endorsement of the bombing prompted calls in Israel for a strong military response. Slavik Alayev (ph), who runs a small shop just across from the bomb site, has seen four bombings in his seven years in this marketplace. He was furious at Hamas's open endorsement of the attack.

Mr. SLAVIK ALAYEV (Shop owner, Tel Aviv): (Through translator) These are terrorists. They're animals. They don't let people live their own life. Hamas, they shouldn't even be there, shouldn't be a government. They should be wiped off the face of the earth.

WESTERVELT: Israeli military and intelligence officials say Islamic Jihad, which carried out the attack, is one of the smallest but most active of the Palestinian militant groups. It's taken responsibility for all but one of the nine suicide bombings in Israel since February of 2005, when several militant factions, including Hamas, agreed to an informal ceasefire. Yosi Landau, the medical volunteer, says he worries today's attack signals a new surge in violence after a relative lull, a return to the days during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, when suicide bombings were regular occurrences.

Mr. LANDAU: It's not heading back, hopefully it's not coming back as it was two years ago, but, as we know, they promised and they're going to do it.

WESTERVELT: Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, offered condolences to the victims' families and said the government is weighing its reaction. He said the government would use “all means at our disposal” to prevent more attacks. Israel has recently stepped up its response to daily homemade rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. The Israelis have launched air strikes and heavy artillery fire into northern Gaza. More than a dozen Palestinian militants, two civilians and two children have been killed.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

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