Fatal blasts spur Israel to lash out
The relative calm seen for six weeks ended with the worst attacks since March.
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- In response to twin suicide bombings that killed 22 people, Israel decided today to close three Palestinian universities, intensify raids against militants and bar Palestinian officials from holding key meetings in the West Bank and abroad.
The blasts went off seconds apart Sunday evening in a crowded old part of Tel Aviv, killing 22 bystanders and wounding more than 100 in the deadliest Palestinian attack since March. Eleven of the dead were Israelis and at least six were foreign workers, with five bodies still not identified today.
An offshoot of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, identified the two assailants as its members. A spokesman said the group, based in the West Bank city of Nablus, is funded by Iran and will carry out more attacks in Israel. The spokesman said the money was funneled to Al Aqsa through Fatah activists in Lebanon.
The blasts underscored the growing chaos in the Palestinian areas and the slipping control of Arafat's government, which condemned the bombings.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held the Palestinian Authority responsible, saying it has encouraged and initiated attacks on Israelis.
The blasts came just three weeks before Israel's Jan. 28 general election and ended a period of six weeks without bombings, one of the longest of relative calm in the past 27 months of fighting. The deadliest bombing was in March, on the eve of the Jewish Passover holiday, when a blast in a hotel killed 29 people.
Sharon said peace talks could resume only once attacks cease. "When we put an end to terror, we will sit down and talk peace, but first we have to defeat terror," Sharon said after visiting wounded in a Tel Aviv hospital today.
In the past, particularly deadly bombings have triggered large-scale Israeli incursions in the West Bank, and hard-liners in Israel's Cabinet have called for expelling Arafat. However, with an Israeli election on the horizon, such a move was unlikely.
Instead, the security Cabinet decided today to close three Palestinian universities as alleged hotbeds of incitement -- a measure Israel last took during the first Palestinian uprising, which lasted from 1987 to 1993.
Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said that Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, the most prestigious in the Palestinian areas, was among those shut down, and that An Najah University in Nablus would probably be closed as well.
Bir Zeit president Hanna Nasser initially said he was told by Palestinian liaison officials with Israel that the campus should be evacuated. Nasser later said the evacuation was simply a precaution because Israel was making movement through checkpoints more difficult in the wake of the bombings, and that he did not receive an order from Israel to close the university.
Three Palestinian Associated Press staffers were barred by the military from reaching the university. The three, in an AP vehicle, were stopped at a checkpoint just south of Bir Zeit and told they could not cross without Israeli press accreditation. Israel withdrew accreditation from Palestinians a year ago.
Israel also decided to bar Palestinian officials from attending a meeting in London this month where they were to discuss reforms demanded by the United States as a first step toward the establishment of an independent state, Gissin said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the attacks emphasize the need for political dialogue. "I hope very much that the Israeli government will think again," he said.
Israel also decided to prevent the 120-member Palestinian Central Council from meeting in Ramallah on Thursday and to place travel restrictions on senior Palestinian Authority officials, who will now have their cars inspected at checkpoints.
The PCC, a key decision-making body, was to discuss a draft of the Palestinian constitution, a reform demanded by the Americans as a first step toward statehood.
Gissin said Israel will also increase "pinpoint" attacks, meaning it will hunt down and kill Palestinian militants -- acts that the Palestinians condemn as assassinations.
"They violated the trust, so we have the right to take such defensive measures to make sure that such horrible terrorist activities don't take place," Gissin said.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the Israeli government's decisions would only add "fuel to the fire."
The Nablus group linked to the Al Aqsa militia identified the bombers as Samer Nouri, 19, and Burak Burak Khelfi, 20. A spokesman for the group, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone, said the faction has several dozen members and was formed after an Israeli military offensive in March. "We are going to continue this way" with attacks, said the spokesman, who insisted on anonymity.
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.