Israel retaliates for deadly blast, rocket attacks

PM Benjamin Netanyahu warns militants not to test Israel`s "iron will".

Updated: Mar 24, 2011, 09:19 AM IST

Jerusalem: Israeli warplanes hit Hamas targets in Gaza early Thursday, retaliating for rocket attacks on Israeli cities, as tension peaked over the first deadly bombing targeting Israelis in Jerusalem in several years.

A blast Israel quickly blamed on Palestinian militants ripped through a bus stop in Jerusalem on Wednesday, killing a woman, wounding two dozen other people and intensifying fears that a period of relative calm could be ending as hopes for a negotiated peace fade.

Violence has been on the rise, with the knife slaying this month of a Jewish settler family as they slept and the deaths of civilians in Gaza by Israeli strikes Tuesday in retaliation for rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned militants not to test Israel`s "iron will”, and vowed a tough response to the bombing.

"Since this government was formed we had a clear security policy — an immediate and aggressive response to every attempt to harm Israeli citizens," he said after spending the evening huddled with his defence minister, military chief and other top security officials.

"We will act aggressively, responsibly and wisely in order to preserve the quiet and security that endured here the past two years."

Retaliating, Israeli warplanes attacked several Hamas facilities and smuggling tunnels in Gaza, Hamas said. No one was hurt.

The bombing — the first fatal attack in Jerusalem in several years — along with a rocket barrage on Wednesday on the southern city of Beersheba, come at a delicate diplomatic moment and could have far-reaching consequences, especially if Israel retaliates or more attacks follow.

In December 2008, Israel responded to months of intense rocket fire with a fierce offensive in Gaza, killing some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians. Hamas, which suffered heavy losses, has largely honoured an unofficial truce since then, but in recent weeks the lull has begun to fray.

The virulently anti-Israel Hamas had no comment on Wednesday`s attack and there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Hamas` Palestinian rival, the moderate Palestinian Authority, quickly condemned the bombing "in the strongest terms”.

The blast went off just as rush hour was starting, around 3 pm, at a crowded bus stop next to the main convention centre, and blew out the windows of two crowded buses. Police said a 4-pound (2-kilogram) bomb went off in a small bag placed at the site.

Rescuers removed bloodied people from the area on stretchers, as sirens from speeding ambulances wailed in the background.

The bomb blew up next to a food stand called "a blast of a kiosk," a name the owner said was to remember an earlier attack at the same site in 1993.

A kiosk worker, David Amoyal, emerged as a hero after police released a recording of him calling authorities to warn them of flames erupting from a nearby phone booth. "Listen there is a bag near the bus stop here," he is heard saying just before the explosion. Amoyal was among the wounded.

The bombing was relatively minor by the standards of the Palestinian uprising of several years ago — when suicide bombers would routinely explode aboard crowded buses and in cafes, restaurants and clubs, killing dozens of people or more in the worst attacks.

But even the spectre of a renewal of such attacks — which deeply scarred the Israeli psyche and left the country`s peace movement in tatters — was enough to bring calls for retaliation.

Bureau Report