Teenage bomber who shook the Middle East

Fear of reprisals as 17-year-old suicide attacker kills 9 in Tel Aviv
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The Independent Online

Samer Samih Hamad, from the West Bank village of Arakeh, near the pre-1967 border, is believed to be one of the youngest suicide bombers ever dispatched by a Palestinian group.

In a video "living will", he dedicated the operation to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Dressed in black with a yellow headband inscribed with Koranic verses, he warned in a clear, firm voice: "There are many other bombers on the way." Relatives said he had completed high school. But he looked more like a boy.

Nidal Hamad, 35, his cousin, told The Independent that Samer was 17 and had left home yesterday to go to his job in Jenin. Another cousin, Nazeer Hamad, carried out an earlier suicide bombing in Afula. "Jews have confiscated more than 50 per cent of our agricultural land, where we cultivated olive, almond and fruit trees," Nidal Hamad said. "I do not know what to tell you. Some youths believe that they should do something about it. Some people believe they should not. But you will never be able to make a distinction between those who believe in it, and those who do not."

Armed police, backed by helicopters, closed the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road last night. Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said they were searching for a vehicle seen leaving the scene of the bombing shortly before the explosion. "We believe it may be connected," he said. Three Palestinian labourers arrested earlier were released.

The attack, at the dilapidated Tel Aviv bus station during the Jewish feast of Passover, threatens to provoke a new round of violence and counter-violence.

Elections on both sides in recent months have changed the face of Israeli-Palestinian relations. There is no dialogue between the new centrist Israeli government and the Hamas administration, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister-designate, vowed revenge. "We will know how to respond," he said before going into the state opening of the recently elected Knesset. "We know what to do." His spokesman, Raanan Gissin, blamed the holiday week atrocity on the new Palestinian leadership. "We are in the midst of a terrorist campaign against Israel," he said. "You have a Hamas government that exonerates terrorism. It says in very clear terms that it will not stop those who attack Israeli citizens. We will pursue the terrorists wherever they are. We can't rely on anyone else to do the job."

After a previous Passover bombing, which killed 30 Jewish guests in a Netanya hotel four years ago, the army launched a major invasion of the West Bank. Observers did not expect anything on that scale this time, but scores of jeeps stormed into Nablus, a stronghold of Islamic Jihad and other radical groups, occupying houses and arresting wanted men. The force quickly took control of the central Shuhada Square. Witnesses reported that Palestinians responded with stones and gunfire. At least seven Palestinians were wounded in exchanges of fire.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians' President and an increasingly isolated old-guard Fatah leader, condemned the bombing. Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel or renounce violence, celebrated it as an act of legitimate self-defence. Sami Abu Zuhri, its spokesman, said: "The Israeli occupation bears responsibility for the continuation of its aggression. Our people are in a state of self-defence and they have every right to use all means to defend themselves."

The bomber struck just before 2pm at the entrance to the popular "Mayor's Falafel" bar, the target of a previous attack which wounded 20 people on 19 January, but caused no fatalities. He was stopped by a security guard. Witnesses said he detonated the explosive while his bag was being searched. The guard is believed to be among the casualties. The old bus station was crowded with holiday travellers and dozens of foreign workers who live and congregate in the area. Pini Sharon, one of the bar's owners, said: "Last time we had a miracle, but there is no second time. Now it's a lot harder, especially when you see all the dead."

Yisrael Yaakov, a regular customer at the falafel bar who witnessed yesterday's attack and its January predecessor, said the blast killed a woman standing near her husband and children. "The father was traumatised," he said. "He went into shock. He ran to the children to gather them up. They were screaming 'Mummy! Mummy!' but she was already dead."

Sonya Levy, a 62-year-old housewife, had just finished shopping when the bomb went off. "I was about to get into my car," she said, "and boom, there was an explosion. A piece of human flesh landed on my car and I started to scream."

Islamic Jihad, a militia which makes no pretence of being a political party, has claimed responsibility for all six of the previous suicide bombings inside Israel since President Abbas declared a fragile ceasefire in February last year.

Ramadan Shallah, its Damascus-based leader, said on Sunday that they were making "non-stop efforts" to infiltrate suicide bombers into Israel. "The non-stop crackdown against our resistance might limit this effort," he said, "but it's not going to stop it." Hamas, which won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, has honoured the ceasefire. But Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a loose network of armed gangs affiliated to Fatah, has continued attacking Israelis. It initially claimed responsibility for yesterday's bombing.

A year of setbacks on the road to peace

* 12 JULY, 2005: A Palestinian suicide bomber attacks an Israeli shopping mall in Netanya, killing five and wounding at least 30. Islamic Jihad claims responsibility

* 28 AUGUST: 40 hurt when a suicide bomber detonates his explosives at Beersheba's bus station

* 21 NOVEMBER: Frustrated by opposition against plans to disengage from the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quits Likud and announces the creation of new party Kadima. Elections planned for March 2006

* 26 OCTOBER A Palestinian blows himself up in the market at Hadera. Six people die and more than 30 are wounded

* 5 DECEMBER: A suicide bomber attacks the Netanya mall for second time in a year, killing five and wounding 40. Islamic Jihad's Jerusalem Brigades claims responsibility

* 18 DECEMBER: Sharon suffers a minor stroke but vows to continue as leader of Kadima

* 29 DECEMBER: An Israeli soldier and two Palestinians are killed in a suicide bombing in Tulkarm in the occupied West Bank. Islamic Jihad claims responsibility

* 5 JANUARY, 2006: Sharon suffers a massive stroke, leaving him in a coma and throwing Israeli politics into turmoil. His deputy Ehud Olmert becomes acting Prime Minister

* 19 JANUARY: Palestinian suicide bomber blows himself up at Mayor's Falafel bar in Tel Aviv's old central bus station, wounding 20. Islamic Jihad claim the bombing

* 26 JANUARY: Hamas sweeps to power in Palestinian elections

* 28 MARCH: Kadima wins Israeli election, humiliating Likud

* 30 MARCH: A Palestinian suicide bomber detonates his explosives after hitching a ride with four West Bank settlers. All four are killed. Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claims responsibility

* 4 APRIL: EU suspends funding to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.