Israel blames Hamas for bombing but limits response
JERUSALEM, Apr 18: Israel blamed the Hamas-led Palestinian government today for a Tel Aviv suicide bombing but acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided for now against launching a military offensive against it.
After a meeting of the interim cabinet and security chiefs, Olmert's office said Israel would instead revoke the Israeli residency status of Hamas officials living in East Jerusalem, which means they could be subject to arrest if they enter the city.
''We will do that immediately,'' Olmert spokesman Raanan Gissin said one day after yesterday's attack at a sandwich bar killed nine people.
The cabinet also approved a police crackdown on the smuggling of Palestinians without permits, who could be militants, into the Jewish state.
''Olmert heard the defence establishment's ideas for possible strikes against the Palestinian Authority and, though the government is responsible, the decision was that there should be more limited action for now,'' a political source said.
US President George W Bush, asked if he was encouraging Israel to show restraint, said: ''I have consistently reminded all parties that they must be mindful of whatever actions they take and mindful of the consequences.'' A large-scale Israeli assault targeting the new Palestinian government could spark a backlash against the Jewish state at a time when it is trying to cement a US-led boycott of the Islamic militant group.
Hamas, which has largely abided by a year-long truce but refuses to embrace peacemaking efforts, stirred Israeli and Western ire by describing yesterday's attack -- claimed by the militant group Islamic Jihad -- as an act of ''self defence''.
Today, Prime Minister and senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israeli actions had triggered the attack.
''The reason behind this cycle is the continuation of the occupation and the continued Israeli assaults against the Palestinian people,'' Haniyeh said before a cabinet meeting.
It was the first such bombing in Israel since Hamas took power three weeks ago, and the deadliest since 2004.
In a statement, a top Islamic Jihad official vowed more suicide bombings, saying the group had 70 more ''martyrs-in-waiting'' who were ''awaiting the moment to explode''.
The moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Tel Aviv bombing, angering militants who today demanded that he apologise. In response, Abbas issued a fresh critique of the attack as an act of a type that ''distort the image of the struggle of the Palestinian people and their just goals'' and said he objected to killing civilians on either side of the conflict.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy politburo chief of Hamas, said Abbas should apologise to the Palestinian people for calling the bombing a ''despicable'' operation.
Gunmen briefly abducted an elite military trooper from outside the office of an Abbas staff member in the Gaza Strip, triggering fears, later disproven, that the Palestinian leader's entourage had been targeted in retaliation for his remarks.
Olmert declared the Palestinian Authority a terrorist entity after Hamas won January elections. But Israel has refrained from assaults on the authority's new leadership or institutions.
In the absence of peace talks, Olmert has vowed to follow last year's Gaza withdrawal by quitting areas of the West Bank and setting Israel's border around Jewish settlement blocs.
Since his centrist Kadima Party narrowly won elections last month, Olmert has been struggling to put together a coalition government robust enough to push through the ''convergence plan''.
Palestinians condemn the plan as a land-grab that could deprive them of a state. They say it boosts support for Hamas, which seeks the Jewish state's destruction, not co-existence.
Israeli forces detained the suicide bomber's father and teenaged brother around the West Bank town of Jenin overnight, Palestinian security sources said. They said about 30 Palestinians were detained in raids in the northern West Bank.
Hamas faces challenges on many fronts, especially finding fresh aid sources following cuts from the West to the new government.