Israel stunned by terror blitz

31 dead, 200 injured in suicide attacks;

Arafat warned: 'This is a moment of truth';

Palestine declares a state of emergency
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The Independent Online

The Palestinian Authority rounded up dozens of Islamic militants today as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew back from the US for an emergency cabinet meeting.

This political upheaval came after a weekend of terrorist attacks inside Israel that left 31 dead and 200 wounded and renewed fears that the war in the Middle East was set to worsen dramatically.

As Israelis reeled from three suicide bombings ­ two in the centre of west Jerusalem and one in the port city of Haifa ­ the international community piled the pressure on Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to act to reform his tottering regime before it was too late.

While the Palestinians prepared for Israel's military response, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, speaking on US television, said: "It is a moment of truth, Mr Arafat." It was, he said, "absolutely necessary for him to take positive action now".

The US President, George Bush, led the condemnation of the attacks, which were claimed by the militant Islamist organisation Hamas in retaliation for Israel's assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, the group's military leader in the West Bank, in a missile strike 10 days ago.

Mr Bush said: "This is a moment where the advocates for peace in the Middle East must rise up and fight terror. Chairman Arafat must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice."

Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority ­ facing the prospect of being placed in the enemy bracket in the West's "war on terror" ­ responded by declaring a state of emergency, and issuing an unusually strong condemnation of the attacks.

But this is unlikely to impress Israel's hardline Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who cut short a visit to the US to fly home last night. In Washington, an Israeli official said there would be "intensive action" against groups responsible for the violence. "The Americans know that Israel will fight terror in the way it sees fit," the official said.

Mr Sharon has called an emergency cabinet meeting for today amid demands from his right-wing colleagues to expel Mr Arafat, topple his regime and take the fight deeper into the occupied territories.

In what may be interpreted as American approval for Israeli military retaliation, Mr Powell said it was up to Israel to decide how to respond, although Mr Sharon should consider the consequences. Israeli paratroopers shot dead four armed Palestinians south of Jenin last night as the army tightened the cordon around West Bank cities.

Nor were Israelis moved by Mr Arafat's announcement that Palestinian security forces had arrested 50 suspected Islamist militants, or by the Palestinian appeal to Israel not to retaliate so that their security services could track down those responsible. The Israeli Communications Minister, Ruby Rivlin, dismissed Mr Arafat's condemnation as "words in the wind".

The most deadly 12 hours of suicide bombings since the Palestinian intifada broke out 14 months ago began shortly after 11.30pm on Saturday, when Jerusalem was rocked by a massive double explosion when two Hamas militants blew themselves up simultaneously in the busy Ben Yehuda Street. Ten young Israelis, who were milling around outside popular coffee bars, were killed. They ranged in age from 14 to 20. About 180 more were treated in hospital. Half an hour later, a booby-trapped car was detonated 50 yards away on the other side of Jaffa Road. It burst into flames, but its presumed targets ­ rescue workers and onlookers ­ escaped unhurt.

Mr Bush's Middle East mediator, Anthony Zinni, laid a wreath on the site yesterday. Hardline Orthodox Jews, praying and agitating there, booed him. The retired Marine general said: "This is the deepest evil one can imagine ­ to attack young people and children, to attack rescue and emergency vehicles trying to come in."

He vowed not to let the bombings sabotage his mission. "It's important to stay together to fight this, that we don't let it deter us from our goal of peace, and that we stand together and make the world see that we will not tolerate this."

In mid-morning, another suicide bomber blew himself up on a crowded bus in Haifa. The bomb, estimated at 10kg, shattered windows, peeled the roof off and buckled the steel frame. Fifteen passengers were killed and at least 45 wounded, two critically. Arabs and Jews in Haifa rushed into the street after the blast, giving water to the wounded and helping them into ambulances.

Only five of the Haifa dead had been identified last night. The rest were so mutilated that the police appealed for relatives to contact them. At least five of the wounded were Filipino guest workers.In a separate attack, two Palestinians killed an Israeli at Elei Sinai, in the Gaza Strip, before Israeli troops shot them dead.