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First suicide bombing in Israel since start of war kills only bomber

NETANYA, Israel—A Palestinian man blew himself up on Sunday in the seaside city of Netanya, but killed only himself—thanks to a sharp-eyed Israeli soldier who stopped him from going inside a crowded lunchtime cafe.

The suicide bombing was the first inside Israel since the start of the Iraq war on March 20.

The radical Islamic Jihad movement announced the attack as "a gift to our heroic holy warriors, the people of Iraq." It vowed, "More martyrdom seekers are coming, God willing."

Sunday's attack shattered a sparkling, sun-splashed afternoon on Netanya's Independence Square, a pedestrian mall about two blocks from the Mediterranean. It suggested escalation in an ongoing radical Muslim campaign to link the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

In a communique from Beirut, Islamic Jihad, the smallest of the fundamentalist groups in the predominantly Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said it had also dispatched more Palestinian bombers to Baghdad to blow themselves up around U.S. and British troops.

In all, police said 49 Israelis were wounded when Rami Ghanem, 20, of a West Bank village, detonated his bomb belt on the sidewalk of the London Cafe.

Still fighting for his life Sunday was an off-duty infantry soldier who spotted the young, clean-shaven man and stepped in to stop him from entering the restaurant. Then Ghanem triggered the blast.

"I saw him as I was going past. I turned away and suddenly I heard an explosion," said lifelong Netanya resident Sydney Bojo, 48, who said he noted many soldiers in the area but was himself not suspicious of the bomber, who was wearing ordinary pants and a checkered shirt.

The bomber "didn't look like anything special, he was just going along like everyone else," said Bojo, whose trousers were splattered with blood after he used his hands to stop a spurting artery in the wounded soldier's neck.

The blast shattered windowpanes and spewed human remains around the cafe's outdoor dining area. Blood splashed onto a cutlery cart beside a poster promoting a half-price South American lunch. The cafe was strewn with chairs, glass and upended strollers after people fled crying and shrieking.

The last suicide bombing took place aboard a bus north of here in Haifa on March 5, killing 17 Israelis. But violence had ebbed since the start of the U.S. war on Iraq, perhaps in part because Israel has clamped stricter closures on the routes between the West Bank and Israel proper and perhaps in part because of efforts by Yasser Arafat's security forces.

Both Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government condemned Sunday's bloodshed, saying it was aimed at taking innocent civilian lives.

Netanya, a rambling city popular with retirees and Russian immigrants, has borne an unusually heavy brunt of the suicide bombings, which across Israel totaled 115 last year, said police spokesman Gil Kleiman.

Netanya also was the scene of the worst such attack of the Palestinian uprising last year when a bomber blew himself up at the Park Hotel, near the cafe, during a community celebration of the Passover meal. Twenty-nine people died.

Since then, security companies have done a burgeoning business in posting private guards, usually with metal detecting wands, at virtually every entrance of every restaurant. But, police said, the London Cafe had no such guard on Sunday.

Sunday morning, sometime before the blast, Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi, reportedly warned ministers at the government's weekly Cabinet meeting that there was a heightened risk of suicide bombings by Palestinian hardline groups. Israel Radio said Ze'evi specifically said the bombings would be designed to protest the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

American forces in Iraq suffered their first such attack of the 10-day campaign Saturday, when a driver detonated his taxi at a military checkpoint, killing four U.S. troops near the Shiite shrine city of Najaf.

On Sunday, according to Israel Radio, Palestinians paid homage to the bomber by naming a square for him inside a refugee camp in Jenin, West Bank. Many of the suicide bombers who have struck in Israel have come from Jenin.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+ISRAEL