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At least 9 killed in Tel Aviv suicide blast

TEL AVIV, Israel—A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a fast-food restaurant in a crowded shopping area of Tel Aviv on Monday, killing at least nine people and creating a fresh crisis for the new Palestinian government, led by the militant Islamic group Hamas.

The terrorist group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest in Israel in two years, and released a videotape of the bomber making his farewell statement.

Hamas leaders, who are already faced with a cutoff of aid to the Palestinian Authority, defended the bombing as a legitimate response to Israeli military operations, drawing immediate criticism from Israel and the United States, and the prospect of further political isolation.

"The continued (Israeli) occupation is the reason behind the tensions and the never-ending cycle of violence," said Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Israeli and American officials called the bombing a clear test of the new government's intentions.

"The signs are clear that Hamas has one goal: It's to destroy the state of Israel," said Gideon Meir, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Hamas' reaction would toughen the U.S. refusal to cooperate with the Palestinian government.

The bombing of the Mayor's Falafel restaurant came just before 2 p.m. as shoppers were preparing for the end of the weeklong Passover celebrations. It shattered car windows and filled the street with shards of broken glass, water bottles and broken chairs. At least 50 people were injured.

A security guard who'd been hired after a January attack on the same location stopped the bomber before he entered the restaurant. While the guard was checking the man's bag, the bomber detonated as much as 30 pounds of explosives hidden inside, police said.

"I heard a big explosion and immediately lay on the ground," said Moshe Dorani, 54, a government worker who was in a store across the street. "I saw smoke coming out of the falafel place and saw people lying on the ground with deep wounds. No one was moving inside."

Israel's Cabinet was expected to meet Tuesday to weigh its response to the bombing, which occurred hours before the new Israeli parliament was sworn in. Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who's in the process of putting together a new coalition government, said he'd do what was necessary to deter more attacks.

"We know how to respond," Olmert said.

Soon after the blast, the Israeli military re-entered the West Bank town of Nablus, where soldiers have been hunting Palestinian militants and engaging in firefights for several weeks.

The Israeli military also continued shelling the Gaza Strip as part of its campaign to stop homemade rockets from being fired into southern Israel. On Monday, a Palestinian teenager was killed and two of his friends were injured by Israeli artillery fire in northern Gaza, the Israeli military reported.

Last week, a 7-year-old Palestinian girl was killed when an Israeli artillery round struck her house after Israel had expanded its fire zone in Gaza.

Israeli officials have warned that Palestinian government leaders, including Prime Minister Haniyeh, might be targeted for retaliation if they're linked to terrorism.

"Anyone who has a hand, or serves as a catalyst, or instigates, or takes part in these acts will certainly bear the consequences," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They are not excluded from Israel's defensive actions."

Hamas' defense of the bombing put the new government at odds with more moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As leader of the rival Fatah party, Abbas has long criticized suicide bombings as counterproductive. He quickly denounced Monday's attack.

"It's like we are seeing a Palestinian body with two heads, and this is going to lead to a conflict between the two," said Jehad Hamad, a political analyst from Al Azhar University in Gaza City.

Ever since Hamas stunned the world in January by toppling Fatah and winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, the rival parties have been vacillating between cooperation and political confrontation.

Fatah refused to join a coalition government, and Abbas has been working to dilute the power of Haniyeh and his new Hamas-dominated Cabinet.

Abbas has put his own troops along the Gaza border with Egypt and installed an ally as the No. 2 overseeing security forces.

Israel, the United States and Europe have moved to choke off critical funds for the new government until Hamas renounces terrorism and accepts Israel's right to exist alongside a Palestinian nation.

Hamas has been struggling to find alternative sources of funding and over the weekend received pledges of $50 million each from Iran and Qatar, enough to help the Palestinian Authority for about a month.

Islamic Jihad identified the bomber as Sami Hammad, 21, and said he was a college dropout from a village near the northern West Bank city of Jenin. He appeared to be little more than a teenager in his videotape.

Wearing a black headband with Quranic verses and a black T-shirt with "Army" written in English, Hammad posed with a machine gun and said more bombers would follow in his wake.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Bekker reported from Tel Aviv, Nissenbaum from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Mohammed Najib contributed to this report from Ramallah.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

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