Israel said yesterday it would exercise its right to self defense, but stopped short of formally abandoning US-backed truce efforts following a Palestinian suicide bombing in a hotel banquet hall that killed 20 diners and wounded more than 130 during a festive Passover Seder, the ritual meal ushering in the weeklong Jewish holiday.
It was one of the deadliest Palestinian attacks in the current round of fighting, and several Cabinet ministers called for massive retaliation, including the ouster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for what one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisers called the "Passover massacre." Israel complained that Arafat has done nothing to prevent terror attacks.
Despite the new bloodshed, US truce envoy Anthony Zinni pressed on with his mission. Yesterday, US officials said Zinni was awaiting a speedy Palestinian response to a revised truce proposal he had given them a day earlier, just before the bomb attack. Israel has already accepted Zinni's proposal for a truce timetable, with some reservations.
Zinni had aborted two previous visits because of spiraling violence.
The Palestinian Authority said it "strongly condemned" Wednesday night's bombing at the hotel in the Mediterranean resort of Netanya, carried out by a member of the Islamic militant Hamas group.
Arafat met with his security chiefs and ordered the arrests of key militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to his Fatah group.
In anticipation of a possible Israeli military strike, Palestinian government offices were evacuated throughout in the West Bank yesterday, and in the town of Ramallah, Arafat's West Bank headquarters, worried parents took their children home early from school.
In Wednesday's attack, 25-year-old Abdel Baset Odeh, a Hamas member, walked into the Park Hotel in Netanya at about 7:15pm, just as about 250 guests were sitting down in the banquet hall for the Passover Seder.
Odeh knew the area well; before he became wanted by Israel, he had worked in several Netanya hotels, Palestinian security officials said. The attacker got past an armed security guard posted in the lobby, walked into the banquet hall and detonated explosives strapped to his body that were packed with nails and ball bearings for greater deadliness.
One guest, 70-year-old Yitzhak, said that as he and his wife fled the inferno in the darkness, he called out to a wounded woman.
Yitzhak, who did not give a last name, said he offered to help the woman get up. "How can you help me?" he recalled her saying. "I don't have any legs."