At least 15 Israelis died and another 60 were injured last night when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a snooker hall near Tel Aviv, ending a short period of relative calm in the region.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, immediately broke off his visit to the United States – just minutes after concluding his meeting with President Bush
A floor of the four-storey club – a snooker and gambling casino as well as a coffee shop – collapsed in the Israeli town of Rishon Lezion, crushing many young people just after 11pm (9pm BST).
Israeli police said the explosives were set off by a Palestinian suicide bomber and that several people were trapped under the rubble of the collapsed floor.
The bombing can only undermine the position of Yasser Arafat, who has insisted he is uninvolved in acts of violence against Israel. But it hits equally at Mr Sharon's massive military onslaught on the Palestinian West Bank, which was designed to end the series of suicide bombings that had struck at the heart of Mr Sharon's election promise to bring security to Israel.
Ever since Israel's army smashed its way into West Bank cities on Mr Sharon's orders last month, killing scores of Palestinians, including many civilians, Palestinian groups have promised revenge attacks on Israel. Last night's bombing must have been intended to coincide with the Sharon-Bush talks – which it did.
The bombed club is in the heart of the industrial section of Rishon Lezion, a city with a population of about 100,000. Part of the ceiling on the top floor collapsed. A sign read "Sheffield Club, snooker, cafeteria." A shop called Baby World occupied the ground floor.
Outside, young women and men cried as they looked up at the bombed-out building. Emergency workers tried to help many to ambulances as police scoured the area for evidence.
Witnesses said a man with a suitcase was seen going into the gaming club and, seconds later, bodies were blasted from the building by the explosion.
Predictably, the Israeli government blamed the Palestinian Authority for the bombing. A spokesman from Mr Sharon's office specifically blamed Mr Arafat's "Palestinian terrorism'' for the blast which, he said, had been carried out "by some of the worst villains known to mankind''.
First reports said that there were no security guards at the club. Many Israeli restaurants and clubs have not bothered to follow new regulations that demand bodyguards should be stationed outside all cafes.
Israel's onslaught on the West Bank had led many to believe that attacks on Israeli targets had been brought to an end. Last night's bombing proves how wrong they were.
Mr Bush and Mr Sharon were given initial details of the explosion about half-an-hour into their hour-long meeting. They were then briefed with more details as the meeting broke up, when Mr Bush expressed his condolence to the Israeli Prime Minister and said he was disgusted by the incident.
Afterwards, President Bush said he was dispatching the CIA director, George Tenet, back to the Middle East to try to establish a Palestinian security force capable of tackling terrorists.
There was no indication yesterday that Mr Sharon and Mr Bush had resolved many of their differences. Mr Bush wants to accelerate peace talks, whereas Mr Sharon wants incremental advances. Mr Bush wants Mr Sharon to deal with Yasser Arafat, while the Israeli would rather circumnavigate him.Reuse content