Israel retaliated yesterday for a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 11 Israelis in Jerusalem by destroying the Gaza headquarters that Yasser Arafat used as a showcase for Palestinian sovereignty.
The Saturday Jerusalem blast just down the street from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's official residence followed hard on the heels of a Palestinian shooting attack that killed two people, including a nine-month-old baby, in the Israeli city of Netanya.
Sharon, at his ranch in southern Israel, and Arafat, confined by Israel to the West Bank city of Ramallah, were far from the attacks which the US said underlined the importance of a new truce mission by its Middle East envoy.
"I see a ceasefire as a central aim of ours," Sharon said at the start of the weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting, explaining why he had waived a long-standing demand for seven days of calm before negotiations on a US-brokered truce plan could begin.
Two previous missions by retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni ended in failure, but the US decided to re-engage in the face of mounting casualties on both sides and Sharon's vow to hit the Palestinians until they sued for peace.
Zinni is due to travel to the region later in the week, apparently before US Vice President Dick Cheney arrives in Israel as part of a Middle East tour widely expected to focus on Washington's next military moves in its war against terror.
Sharon is under increasing pressure from shellshocked Israelis to end the violence that has made almost every corner of their country unsafe. The death toll has risen sharply in the past week as tit-for-tat violence has raised fears of all-out war.
Arafat will miss an important Arab League summit in Beirut at the end of the month unless Israel lifts the siege, a move it is unlikely to make unless Palestinian attacks subside.
At his wrecked seaside Gaza headquarters, Palestinian security officers picked through metal, plaster, wood and concrete that were left strewn across the room where Arafat has received foreign presidents and guests.
Palestinian security sources said 30 missiles fired from helicopters slammed into the building, destroying Arafat's private office and his bedroom, in a series of blasts and blinding white flashes that lit up the night sky.
There were no reports of injuries in the attack, which the Palestinian Cabinet called "a dangerous aggression against Palestinian national sovereignty." Palestinians usually evacuate official compounds when Israeli retaliation is expected.
The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at Jerusalem's Moment Cafe, which many customers had regarded as a safe haven due to its proximity to Sharon's heavily guarded residence.
Almost all of the dead were in their 20s, patrons of a trendy watering hole widely regarded as a bastion of doves who have been largely silenced by mounting violence in a city where religious and right-wing voices echo the loudest.
Twenty-year-old Fouad Hurani detonated the bomb as he stood in a queue of people waiting for a table. He was blown to bits.
"There was a blast that was simply atomic," a witness told Israel Radio, adding that about 50 people had been in the cafe at the end of the Jewish sabbath on Saturday night.
"People started screaming, going wild. I had never seen anything like it. Suddenly I got up and I saw -- I kid you not -- something like 10 or 15 people laid out, unconscious."