HADERA, Israel (AP) — A 20-year-old Palestinian blacksmith blew himself up at a falafel stand in an open-air market Wednesday, killing five Israelis and wounding more than 30 in the deadliest attack in the country in more than three months.
The bombing stifled faint peace hopes following Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. The blast also embarrassed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who only hours earlier had scolded militant groups for repeatedly violating a truce.
The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, saying the attack was to avenge the killing of its West Bank leader by Israeli forces this week.
The bomber struck while the market in the central town of Hadera was bustling a day after being closed for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.
After the attack, the bloodied body of a man in his 50’s lay on the ground among scattered fruits and mangled metal shards. Rescue workers covered other bodies with blankets, walking on pools of blood and shattered glass. A section of the falafel stand’s metal roof hung from a eucalyptus tree high above the market.
Jack Weinberg, a Brooklyn-born psychologist in Hadera, arrived at the scene shortly after the blast and saw the wreckage of a car. “If this could happen to a car which is made of metal, I was afraid of what it could do to a person,” he said.
Then Weinberg saw a dismembered body with its face still intact. “It was the most frightening thing,” he said.
The attack came hours after Iran’s state-run media reported comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and saying a new wave of Palestinian attacks would destroy the Jewish state.
Recalling Iran’s history of support for Islamic Jihad, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev criticized both Ahmadinejad’s statement and another from Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of the Hamas militant group in Gaza who threatened fresh violence against Israel.
“Today, Israelis heard two extremists speak openly about destroying the Jewish state. One was the new president of Iran, and the other was the leader of Hamas, Mahmoud Zahar. And it appears the problem with these extremists is that they followed through on their violent declarations with violent actions,” Regev told The Associated Press.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan condemned the bombing and called on the Palestinian leadership to crack down on militants.
“The Palestinian Authority needs to do more to end the violence and prevent terrorist attacks from being carried out,” he said. “The terrorist attacks that take place only undermine the leadership of President Abbas and undermine his principle of one authority, one law, one gun.”
Abbas, in a speech before parliament, lashed out at the militants, saying they had no right to violate a February cease-fire. “No one has the right to respond here and there, unilaterally,” he said.
Later, Abbas condemned the suicide attack, saying: “It harms Palestinian interests and could widen the cycle of violence, chaos, extremism and bloodshed.”
“It is not permitted for anyone to take the law into their hands,” he added.
In a phone call to the AP, Islamic Jihad said the bombing was to avenge the killing of Luay Saadi, leader of the group’s military wing in the West Bank. Saadi died in a shootout with Israeli soldiers Monday.
In Gaza on Wednesday evening, dozens of masked Islamic Jihad militants held a news conference at which they celebrated the attack in Hadera as a “great victory as a message to our beloved Palestinian people and Islamic and Arab nations.”
Wednesday also marked the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Islamic Jihad chief Fathi Shekaki in Malta — a killing widely attributed to Israel.
Islamic Jihad signed on to an informal truce with Israel in February, but made the pledge meaningless by reserving the right to retaliate for any perceived Israeli violations. The four last suicide bombings in Israel were carried out by Islamic Jihad. These blasts killed 15 Israelis and wounded dozens.
In response, Israeli forces have stepped up their hunt for Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank.
Islamic Jihad has been trying to distinguish itself from Hamas, its main political rival, which since the cease-fire agreement has refrained from suicide attacks in Israel. Leading Islamic Jihad members said privately their group keeps carrying out attacks because it wants to sharpen its image as less willing to compromise than Hamas, which is increasingly transforming itself into a political party.
Hamas is competing in parliament elections in January and is more in tune with Palestinian public opinion. Palestinians would likely blame militants for new hardships caused by Israeli retaliation for attacks, and Hamas does not want to turn public opinion against it.
Islamic Jihad is boycotting the balloting. The group has also received money from Iran, funneled to its West Bank cells by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Wednesday’s suicide bomber was identified as a 20-year-old from the West Bank town of Qabatiyeh. His name, Hassan Abu Zeid, was announced over a bullhorn in Qabatiyeh, residents said. Israeli police said the man had been standing in line at the falafel stand before blowing himself up.
His parents were evacuating their home, fearing an Israeli response. His mother, Raqaiah, wailed, “Where are you, my dear son?” Relatives said he worked as a blacksmith with his father and disappeared after morning prayers Wednesday.
Six people, including the bomber, were killed in the blast, rescue service officials said. More than 30 people were wounded, nine of them seriously, they said.
The most recent suicide bombing in Israel, on Aug. 28 in Beersheba, killed only the bomber. Before that, a July 12 suicide blast in Netanya killed five Israelis.
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last month has raised hopes for a return to Mideast peacemaking after five years of bloodshed. However, the sides have failed to capitalize on the pullout’s momentum.
Israeli officials blamaed Abbas’ government for failing to control extremists. “The Palestinian Authority talks but doesn’t do anything,” Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio.