The move came hours after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a crowded bus in Tel Aviv earlier in the day, killing at least five and wounding 60 others.
The deadly explosion ripped through a commuter bus in Tel Aviv just before 1 pm local time, as it passed in front of a popular synagogue located in the heart of the city’s restaurant and business district. The blast — which occurred on the day before the Jewish holiday of Sukkot — ripped the roof off the bus, blew out most of its windows and blackened its interior.
“We heard a loud blast, we went out to the street, we saw a bus moving, without its driver, all blown up… The windows were all blown out and I saw people jumping out the windows in the back,” a witness told The Jerusalem Post. The driver was among those killed.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, though there have been a number of conflicting reports in the Israeli media of claims made by the militant Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi said he welcomed the attack, but he did not know who was responsible for it.
“I expect this is one of a series of martyr operations,” Rantisi told the Associated Press. “The martyr operations will continue against the Zionists, we are defending our people. The resistance will escalate. The Zionists are paying for the crimes and terrorism of their leaders and they should know that we are the real owners of this land and we would never give it up.”
Shortly after the bombing, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scheduled a special security Cabinet meeting to discuss an Israeli response. Within hours, Israeli tanks moved in on Arafat’s headquarters.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters that Arafat had telephoned him, saying the Israeli forces were firing on the building. Erekat said Arafat has not been hurt in the attack, but two of the Palestinian leader’s bodyguards had been slightly injured.
The suicide bombing was the second attack against Israelis in as many days. On Wednesday, a suicide bomber suicide blew himself up at a bus stop in northern Israel, killing an Israeli policeman. The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack.
Mark Sofer, an official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post “once again, the utter bestiality of Palestinian terrorism has reared its ugly head, on a bus in Tel Aviv.” Sofer said he held the Palestinian Authority responsible, accusing it of doing to rein in terrorists.
Before the Israeli response, the Palestinian Authority released a statement condemning the Tel Aviv suicide attack, saying it “and all other attacks against civilians” thwart the national interests of Palestinians and provide Sharon and the Israeli army “sufficient pretext to kill and to suppress [the Palestinian people].”
The latest round of violence comes a day after Israel rejected a Palestinian proposal for a two-stage cease-fire. Israel said the Palestinian offer to stop all attacks in Israel proper during the first stage would implicitly allow Palestinian militants to strike Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.