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Israel Suffers Fourth Bomb Attack: 12 Killed, 109 Hurt

By Marjorie Miller and Emily Hauser
Los Angeles Times
TEL AVIV, Israel

As the Israeli government deployed thousands of soldiers and police to protect Jerusalem, a suicide bomber turned on Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, blowing himself up in a crowded crosswalk by the city's busiest shopping center. Twelve people were killed and 109 wounded.

The bombing was the fourth in Israel in just over a week, bringing the nine-day death toll to at least 56 in a severe blow to the peace process. It deepened Prime Minister Shimon Peres' political crisis and pushed his government into a war against Islamic extremists.

The explosion threw the country into a panic as Israelis realized they were in the middle of a terrorist offensive unlike any they have experienced in the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On Sunday, 18 people were killed by a suicide bomber on a bus in downtown Jerusalem, a week to the day after two previous bombings in Jerusalem and the city of Ashkelon.

"The message is that there is a terrorist campaign and not single attacks," said Ehud Yaari, Arab affairs analyst for Israeli television. "This Hamas group has the infrastructure to carry out attacks whenever it sees fit to do so."

The Islamic extremist group Hamas claimed responsibility for the blast in anonymous telephone calls to Israeli radio, as it did in the previous three bombings. One caller identified the Tel Aviv bomber as 24-year-old Saleh Abdel Rahim of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Another caller said the attack was a joint operation with the militant group Islamic Jihad, and claimed it was a response to Peres' declaration of war against the fundamentalists Sunday night. The caller warned the government not to make any other "foolish" decisions or Hamas would strike again.

Tel Aviv Police Chief Gabi Last said the bomber was on foot when he blew himself up at about 4 p.m. in a downtown teeming with shoppers, and children and teen-agers dressed in festive costumes for the Jewish holiday of Purim. At least three teen-agers were among the dead.

The blast of about 25 to 30 pounds of TNT packed with nails left the city center looking like a war zone of mangled bodies, charred automobiles and blown-out store windows. Police poured into the area with dogs to sniff for a second bomb, while emergency crews evacuated dazed and bloodied survivors and cleared out the dead. Ultra-orthodox Jews collected body pieces for burial.

Police and city officials said they had intelligence that made them fear an attack in Tel Aviv and called off scheduled Purim street celebrations. They said that increased security in the area where many youths nonetheless gathered may have prevented the bomber from entering the busy Dizengoff Street shopping center, where an indoor blast most likely would have caused even more casualties.

After Monday's explosion, Peres held an emergency Cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and announced that he would establish a joint-forces command to fight the terrorists. He put it under the authority of Ami Ayalon, the new chief of Israel's General Security Service, which is also known as Shin Bet.

"We will go to any corner where this perverse terror has taken root," Peres said after the meeting. "Israel can be confident that we are recruiting every resource we possibly can. I cannot, unfortunately, promise that from now on everything will proceed smoothly. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can tell you that we shall overcome this."

Peres, who is also Defense Minister, declined to comment on what specific measures the government might take against Hamas, but he reportedly was considering deportations of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory and military raids against Hamas targets in areas under Palestinian rule.

Security officials under Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat warned that they would view an Israeli military raid as a violation of the peace agreements and an attack against Palestinian sovereignty.

Arafat, fighting to save the rapidly unraveling peace accord, condemned the Tel Aviv attack and said he was taking steps against the Islamic "paramilitary" groups carrying out the bombings, making scores of arrests.

Hamas had claimed that the first three suicide bombings were in retaliation for the assassination last January of a Hamas bomb-maker.