Tel Aviv suicide attack may disrupt Palestinian vote

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The Independent Online

A suicide bomber injured 20 people, at least one seriously, when he blew himself up in a fast food café at a crowded pedestrian mall in south Tel Aviv yesterday.

The explosion, detonated by a Palestinian man who witnesses said had been disguised as a pedlar selling disposable razors, came six days before Palestinian voters are due to go to the polls in their first Legislative Council elections for nearly a decade.

Responsibility for the bombing inside The Mayor's Shwarma café was claimed by Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for the past six suicide bombings in Israel and is taking no part in the Palestinian elections.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, promised to "punish those responsible for the attack" in a strongly worded statement that implied the bombing may have been partly planned to invite Israeli retaliation, which could disrupt the elections during the run up to polling on Wednesday next week.

Mr Abbas said: "This terrorist attack aims to disrupt the open atmosphere leading up to our democratic elections and sabotage the measures the Palestinian Authority is taking to maintain security and calm in the occupied Palestinian territories." The President described the perpetrators as "terrorists who want to destroy all hopes of peace and democracy".

The handling of measures against the organisers of the bombing at a highly sensitive time in the occupied Palestinian territories will be an early test for Ehud Olmert, acting as Prime Minister in place of Ariel Sharon, who is critically ill in hospital after a major stroke a fortnight ago.

The casualties might have been heavier had not many patrons of the café, in a working-class area popular with foreign workers, been sitting on the pavement outside it in the sunshine. Yehiel Ohana, who works in a nearby store, said the bomber, wearing a black coat and black stocking cap, aroused his suspicions because of his unsteady gait.

He added: "The guy was standing at the corner of the street, looking like he was waiting for someone. He swayed strangely. Then he went into the shwarma stand and two to three seconds later we heard the explosion. Everything shuddered. We entered the shwarma stand, and we saw him lying on the floor, and then we understood he was a suicide bomber."

Sources in the West Bank city of Nablus told Ha'aretz newspaper the bomber had come from the Balata refugee camp there and was a member of an extreme group within the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martys' Brigades, which has pledged to undermine the elections.

But Islamic Jihad, the militant faction that Palestinian officials and Israel believe draws support from Iran, issued a video showing the bomber, whom it identified as Sami Abdel Hafiz Antar, 22, from Nablus. The video appeared to reinforce Islamic Jihad's claim to have organised the bombing, the first since the one that killed five Israelis in Netanya on 5 December.

Meanwhile, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership have failed to resolve the dispute over voting in East Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Palestinian officials said Israel had refused to issue a written guarantee that voters in the city would not put at risk their Israeli-issued ID as Jerusalem residents and despite US pressure were still reluctant to agree to the presence of Hamas candidates on ballot papers in the city.