Suicide Bomber Injures 24 in Tel Aviv

The attack came just hours after the Islamic militant group Hamas said it would avenge Israel’s killing of a Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip Thursday evening.

The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, identifying the bomber as 18-year-old Safwat Khalil.

Police said they captured an accomplice who had a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The man allegedly dropped the gun after Khalil’s nail-studded bomb sent benches crashing through store windows in the pedestrian mall near the defunct bus station in Tel Aviv.

Witnesses said the force of the explosion was so strong it sent people flying through the air. Two of the 24 injured bystanders are in serious condition, according to police.

It was the second time this week that the center of a major Israeli city was the target of such an attack. On Tuesday, a Palestinian gunman killed two women on a busy Jerusalem street before police shot him dead.

The Palestinian Authority released a statement saying it “condemns any action that harms Israeli civilians.”

However, the Israeli government again blamed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for the bombing, saying he has done nothing to stop militant groups from targeting Israeli civilians.

“All the signs point to one of the extremist Palestinian groups but, again, the responsibility belongs to the Palestinian Authority which is continuing a policy of terror,” said Danny Ayalon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s foreign policy adviser.

In reprisal for the suicide bombing, Israel warplanes struck Palestinian security targets in Gaza City and the West Bank. Missiles hit a compound next to Arafat’s seaside headquarters and the power went out in Gaza City during the attack.

In the streets of the West Bank town of Ramallah, thousands of Palestinians marched in support of the bombing. Demonstrators chanted “no security, no security,” in Hebrew and handed out candy in celebration of the first suicide bomber in Israel since Dec. 2.

Palestinian officials blame the show of support for violence on Israel’s policy of targeting Palestinian militant leaders for death.

“The continuation of the Israeli assassination policy will lead to more violence and bloodshed. The Israeli government will bear the consequences,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Arafat adviser, said before the Tel Aviv attack.

Earlier this week, Israeli commandos raided a Hamas hideout in Nablus, killing four senior members of Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al Qassam.

Izzedine al Qassam commander Bakr Hamdan, 28, was killed Thursday when Israeli helicopters launched missiles at his car in a Gaza Strip refugee camp.

“Hamas will not forget the blood of the martyrs, and Hamas will avenge every drop of his blood,” Ahmed Hamdan, a Hamas leader and relative of the dead man, said.

The Israeli military said Hamdan was a justifiable target because he was implicated in dozens of mortar, shooting and bomb attacks on Israeli troops and civilians.

Arafat’s position with the U.S. apparently weakens

The latest violence comes as new reports indicate President Arafat’s relations with the U.S. may be souring. The Washington Post reports U.S. officials are considering a suspension of their two-month-old peacemaking mission and might even sever contact with the Palestinian leader altogether.

Today, President Bush again expressed his frustration at Arafat’s handling of the recent attempt by Palestinians to smuggle 50 tons of weapons aboard a ship seized in the Red Sea by the Israeli Navy.

“I am disappointed in Yasser Arafat. He must make a full effort to rout out terror in the Middle East. Ordering up weapons that were intercepted on a boat headed for that part of the world is not part of fighting terror, that’s enhancing terror. And obviously we’re very disappointed in him,” Bush said.

American and Israeli intelligence reportedly shows senior Palestinian figures were involved in the illegal deal, but Arafat has repeatedly denied all knowledge of the plan and has not explained the evidence against his government.

On Wednesday, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the arms smuggling attempt was a watershed event that could derail the American-led truce negotiations.

In addition, the Israeli government announced today that Prime Minister Sharon is scheduled to visit the United States for talks with Bush on Feb. 7. This would be his fourth meeting with Bush.

Arafat, who has been trapped for over a month at his Ramallah headquarters, has not yet been invited to the White House.

However, many Arab leaders blame the Israeli leader for the recent escalation in violence. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said in an interview with Reuters Friday that there was “no peace prospect” in the region as long as Sharon, who “believes only in force,” was in power.