Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation, claimed in a fax to the French news agency AFP that its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassem brigades, had carried out the attack. It said it wanted the release of all its members imprisoned by Israel by 14 December.
Three suicide bombers blew themselves up, one after another, near the Atara cafe in Ben Yehuda, a street always crowded at mid-afternoon.
I was driving down King George Street, which passes the end of Ben Yehuda, as the first explosions went off. Almost immediately the less seriously hurt appeared, looking shocked and dabbing at wounds.
A few minutes later police and soldiers carried the wounded from the scene and laid them on the pavement. Many were half-naked, their clothes torn off by the force of the blast. Heavily armed paratroopers ripped open rubbish bins in case one contained a fourth bomb.
The police said the explosives used seemed to be the same type as those used in an attack which killed 15 people in a food market 300 yards away from Ben Yehuda on 30 July.
The bombs underline the fact that relations between Palestinians and Israelis are more hostile than at any time since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993.
They also deepen the sense of crisis in the lead-up to the visit to Israel next week by Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. In Washington, President Bill Clinton said: "It is clear the perpetrators of this attack intended to kill both innocent people and the peace process itself."
He said Ms Albright would go ahead with her planned Middle East tour. He again called on Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to "do all it can to create an environment that leaves no doubt that terror will not be tolerated".
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, returned yesterday to Jerusalem to convene his security cabinet. Palestinian security forces arrested two Hamas leaders in the West Bank hours after the bombing. Relatives said Jamal Mansour of Nablus and Mahmoud Misleh of Ramallah were taken from their homes for interrogation.
Israel has reimposed a total closure on Gaza and the occupied territories. This had begun to be lifted this week after the last bombing.
Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary of Mr Arafat's cabinet, yesterday denounced the explosions. "The Palestinian people are against terrorism against civilians ... and we will investigate to see who is behind it," he said.
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