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Hamas Claims Responsiblilty for Israel Suicide Bombing - 2002-03-27

Police say at least 15 people are dead and dozens wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up in the northern Israeli coastal city of Netanya. The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The suicide bomber detonated a large explosive device inside the Park Hotel in Netanya, where guests were gathered for the Passover seder, a ritual meal ushering in the Jewish holiday.

Police and ambulances rushed to the scene in the seaside town north of Tel Aviv, and close to the line that separates Israel and the West Bank. Some of the wounded were seen bleeding and staggering out of the lobby, which was plunged into darkness by the blast.

Police say the bomber entered the hotel, crossed the lobby and reached the dining hall where he exploded the charges. The explosion tore through the ground floor of the hotel, blowing out walls and overturning tables and chairs.

The latest attack comes as U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni is in the region trying to broker a cease-fire to end the violence.

Israeli government spokesman Ra'anan Gissin blamed the bombing on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is currently consulting with top Israeli officials regarding a possible response.

"It is really regrettable that Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have taken no steps whatsoever, ever since General Zinni came, even before, to stop terrorism, to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," said Mr. Gissin. "We have been urging them to do that, they have pledged to do that, they did nothing. Arafat can not exonerate himself."

Israeli police have been on high alert for attacks by Palestinian militants during the Passover holiday, which celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Mr. Gissin says Israel's resolve during the current conflict should remind the rest of the world that the Jews will never leave their homeland.

"I think it is a very grim reminder to us that for so many years there have been so many enemies of the Jewish people throughout the centuries who have been trying to destroy us," said the Israeli spokesman. ?But I think there is something very symbolic that this happened, it is awful that it happened, but something very symbolic that it happened on this eve when we remember how we got out of Egypt, from slavery, to freedom and redemption and returned back to our ancestral homeland."

About 50 Palestinian suicide bombers have blown themselves up since the uprising against Israeli occupation began 18 months ago.