Bat mitzvah massacre in Israel leaves seven dead

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The Independent Online

A Palestinian guerrilla hurling grenades burst into a packed wedding hall in Israel, killing at least six people, before being shot dead by police.

A Palestinian guerrilla hurling grenades burst into a packed wedding hall in Israel, killing at least six people, before being shot dead by police.

At least 33 people were injured when the gunman opened fire on the crowd, which had gathered to celebrate a bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony.

Responsibility for the attack ­ the worst in Israel for more than a month ­ was swiftly claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which said it was vengeance for the killing of one of its leaders by an Israeli death squad earlier this week.

An Israeli government spokesmen moved quickly to blame Yasser Arafat, who is confined to the West Bank town of Ramallah, and vowed that the attack would not go unanswered, raising the possibility that Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, may move to topple him.

The attack comes after a surge in violence that began with the killing last week by Hamas guerrillas of four Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with its biggest demolition of Arab houses in the Gaza Strip since the start of the intifada, and the violence has continued with the killing of nearly a dozen Israelis in three days.

The latest attack happened in the Mediterranean town of Hadera, which stands close to the Green Line dividing northern Israel from the occupied West Bank. The town has been the subject of repeated Palestinian attacks during the 16-month uprising. Reports said the number of dead would have been far higher, had the attacker's gun not jammed.

The assault is a fresh blow to attempts by the United States and the international community to revive ceasefire negotiations based on the recommendations of the Mitchell committee.

An Israeli police spokesman gave few details but a police source said the man, apparently on a suicide mission, had detonated explosives on him and thrown several grenades into the hall. An ambulance worker told Israel's Channel Two television: "A man entered the wedding hall and opened fire. Dozens of people were hit." An Israeli police spokesman said: "A terrorist entered the wedding hall, threw several grenades. There are five dead at this time, and a number of wounded."

Yossi Elbaz, owner of the Armon David wedding hall, told Channel Two: "The terrorist came in shooting. He fired all over the hall."

A belt filled with explosives was found on the attacker and police were trying to defuse it, Israeli army radio said.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said the killer, Abed Hassouna, was from a village near the Palestinian town of Nablus and launched the attack to avenge the death of Raed Karmi, the militia's leader in the town of Tulkarem.

Karmi was killed by a bomb detonated by Israeli undercover forces earlier this week. The group had vowed to avenge his death.

In a recent attack in Hadera, a Palestinian suicide bomber set off explosives strapped to his body on a bus on a main highway in November, killing himself and three Israeli passengers. The militant Islamic Jihad group later claimed responsibility for the last.

Before the attack, Israel had already stepped up its blockade of Palestinian towns in the West Bank in response to the earlier attacks on civilians.