Israel bomb attacks: Twenty feared dead as Hamas claims responsibility for latest outrage to hit Middle East negotiations

Tel Aviv blast has peace on the ropes
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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington and agencies

A suicide bomber killed up to 20 people and wounded 78, including children, outside a crowded Tel Aviv shopping mall yesterday, putting the continued existence of the Middle East peace process in question.

The bombings are designed to wreck Arab-Israeli peacemaking and could rob Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres of victory in the early elections he has called for May 29.

The Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the blast, the second in two days. Israeli television and radio quoted police as saying up to 20 people had died; on Sunday, a Hamas suicide bomber killed 18 people on a bus in Jerusalem.

"It is a suicide bomber who crossed the street on the corner of Dizengoff and King George (streets) in a crowd of people and cars and blew himself up." said Tel Aviv's police chief, chief Gabi Last.

Ronnie Milo, mayor of Tel Aviv, said the bomber planned to enter the shopping mall which was full of children in costume for a Jewish holiday. "The bomber apparently was on his way into the shopping centre where they were dozens of kids celebrating Purim," Mr Milo said. "He apparently saw the policeman at the entrance to the centre and decided to blow himself up on the street. We saw his head several metres away." He said the bomber had explosives strapped to his body.

An unidentified caller to Israel Radio's Arabic service said Hamas was responsible. "An anonymous caller speaking in Arabic claimed he was talking in the name of the Hamas movement and said that Salah Abdel-Rahim Ishaq, 24, from Ramallah, carried out the attack," the report said.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was quoted by his spokesman as calling the blast "a declaration of war". "The peace process is in danger," Mr Arafat's spokesman Marwan Kanafani said.

Mr Arafat told reporters at his headquarters: "We will cooperate with the Israeli government to confront these dangerous criminal acts that target the Palestinian people and the Israeli people and the peace process."

Mr Peres's government has urged Mr Arafat repeatedly to get tough with Islamic militants of the Hamas group, who have claimed responsibility for the most of the attacks which have killed more than 200 Israelis since September 1993.

Mr Arafat, who later met with top security chiefs in emergency session, told reporters that "this is the time for action at all levels and not a time for words". He said his security forces had been in a "state of emergency" since Sunday.

But the immediate impact of the new bomb seemed to be to deal the fragile peace process another heavy blow.

Last night, Mr Peres's office said that Israel had ordered home its delegation to peace talks with Syria in the United States. "We are sending the delegation home following the latest attack," said an official.

The Israeli-Syrian talks had been suspended until Wednesday following Sunday's bombing. Syria, stopping short of outright condemnation of that attack, said yesterday that Israel could never achieve security or stability if it did not work to achieve what Damascus called real and just peace with the Arabs.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, yesterday cut short a visit to the Caribbean to chair an emergency session of President Bill Clinton's top national security advisers on the crisis in Israel, convened even before the new bombing in Tel Aviv.

The latest attack, condemned by President Clinton as "a senseless act of violence against innocent people", has stunned and dismayed the administration, leaving it few options to prevent the complete unravelling of a Middle East peace process in which Washington has invested considerable time, diplomatic energy and prestige.

Speaking during a campaign trip to Michigan, Mr Clinton urged Israelis to "fight for peace" and reject the "division and conflict" which were the goals of extremists on all sides, Jewish and Arab alike. But those exhortations will be hard to translate into reality - as shown by the jeers that rained upon the head of Martin Indyk, the US Ambassador to Israel, as he visited the scene of the bombing yesterday.

In practice there seems little the US can do. According to a White House spokesman, the meeting of Mr Christopher, the Defense Secretary William Perry, the CIA director John Deutch, and Anthony Lake, Mr Clinton's national security adviser, would examine "ways of assisting the Israelis". That, presumably, includes the use of US intelligence to help track down members of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists.

Beyond that, Washington will do what it can to exert pressure on the Arab states in the region to give no succour or shelter to the terrorist groups, who some experts believe may be based not in the PLO-administered Gaza strip or West Bank, but outside Israel altogether, perhaps in Jordan or Lebanon - in the latter case with the tacit consent of Syria.

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