JERUSALEM -- Israel prepared a tough response to a Palestinian suicide bombing in a suburban pool hall, weighing options including a large-scale military operation and expelling Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader, meanwhile, said Wednesday he was ready to wage "war against terrorism."
In a new attack Wednesday, coming just 12 hours after the pool hall bombing killed 15 Israelis, a bomber detonated explosives at a bus stop in northern Israel. The assailant was critically wounded, but caused no injuries to others.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who received word of Tuesday's pool hall bombing during a White House meeting with President Bush, cut short his trip and promised swift retaliation. Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they widely expected the Gaza Strip to be targeted by Israel.
The Islamic militant group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombing, is based in Gaza, which was spared in the last Israeli offensive, "Operation Defensive Shield," launched March 29 against Palestinian militants.
The pool hall bomber walked into the crowded third-floor "Sheffield Club" in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday and set off metal-studded explosives which, according to some accounts, were hidden in a suitcase. The blast blew out walls, and witnesses said victims flew through the air into the parking lot below.
"Suddenly, everything was dark and there were bodies on the floor, and broken chairs and tables and dust," said patron Suzie Biton, who was waiting for her boyfriend to buy chips for a slot machine when the explosion shook the club.
The bomber and 15 Israelis were killed, including two people who died of injuries Wednesday. More than 60 were wounded, including more than a dozen who were in serious condition. The club, which police said was operating without a license, had no guard at the door, a violation of Israeli security procedures.
Sharon was to convene his security Cabinet later Wednesday to approve Israel's response. "Israel will act strongly" against Palestinian militants, said Sharon, adding that the mission of the previous military offensive has not been completed. "The battle continues and will continue, until all those who believe that that they can make gains through the use of terror will cease to exist," he said in Washington.
Education Minister Limor Livnat, who traveled with Sharon, said "it is very possible that in the end, there will be no choice and it will be necessary to expel Arafat," but that Sharon has not yet made a decision. Sharon held Arafat responsible for Tuesday's attack.
In Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer met with army commanders Wednesday. Before the bombings, Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that if terror attacks resume, Israel will be forced to carry out an offensive at least as extensive as the previous one, the largest-scale operation in a generation.
Hamas, which has carried out scores of attacks on Israelis in the past 19 months of fighting, claimed responsibility and said there would be more bombings.
"The resistance will continue," a senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, told state-run Iranian radio. "This is the price the Zionists should pay because of their cruel crimes and atrocities." Zionism refers to the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state.
Hamas did not identify the bomber.
Arafat, in an apparent attempt to forestall reprisals, promised to take action against Palestinian militants, but said his security forces were in such disarray after the previous Israeli incursion that they would not be able to do much.
"As the president of the Palestinian Authority, I reiterate here my ... readiness to participate with the U.S. administration and the international community in their war against terrorism," Arafat said in a statement Wednesday.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said the recent Israeli offensive into Palestinian territories was responsible for the renewed attacks.
"They are dragging the whole region into more violence," she said. "It should have become clear now that there will be no peace or security for the Israelis without peace and security for the Palestinians and without full respect for the human rights of the Palestinians," she said.
The back-to-back bombings ended a period of relative calm in Israel. The previous bombing was April 12, when a woman blew herself up in an outdoor market in Jerusalem, killing six bystanders.
"What we had over the past two weeks was a lull, a very temporary one," wrote military commentator Alex Fischman in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "Operation Defensive Shield made suicide bombers multiply like mushrooms after the rain."
Army commanders have said they could reduce, but not stop suicide attacks.
Sharon said the attack was "proof of the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority," blaming Arafat without mentioning him by name.
Sharon has been trying to convince the Americans that Arafat should not play a part in peace talks, charging that he is responsible for the violence that has plagued the region for more than 19 months.
Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said the president "was able to personally convey his condolences to the prime minister and ... register his disgust with this wanton waste of life."
The two leaders were unable to bridge major differences on the Middle East crisis, including whether talks in the region should result in a Palestinian state, an outcome that the United States believes is essential.
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