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Suicide Bomber Injures 20; Hamas Vows Increased Attacks - 2002-01-25

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv Friday, injuring more than 20 people. The attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body, killing himself and sending the city into panic.

The attack took place outside the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, during the Friday morning shopping rush before the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

The force of the blast overturned tables and benches of nearby cafes and shattered store windows in the area.

Police units searched the neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv to make sure there were no more explosive devices.

Police arrested two Palestinian men spotted fleeing from the scene after the attack. Both men were from cities in the West Bank.

A Kalashnikov rifle was also discovered near the blast site, raising police suspicions that a joint suicide bombing and shooting attack had been planned.

The suicide bombing followed the killing of three suspected Palestinian militants by Israeli forces, who remain on high alert following warnings of more terror attacks.

One of them was a Hamas military commander, who was killed by missiles fired late Thursday at his car by an Israeli helicopter, near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar said that the organization, which has been behind many of the suicide bombings, is going to avenge the killing of its members by Israeli forces.

"We are going to escalate our activity. We are going to escalate our resistance. We are going to escalate for everybody, for every Palestinian, whether in the West Bank, Gaza, even in Lebanon," he said.

Dore Gold, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rejected claims that the targeting of Palestinian militants was leading to revenge attacks against Jews.

"This bombing attack today, in the heart of Tel Aviv, is not a case of tit-for-tat. This is part of a deliberate strategy of escalation by all the Palestinian organizations against the people of Israel. Israel cannot accept this, and Israel will have to defend its population," he said.

Shortly after the attack, some Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah handed out candy in celebration of the bombing.

But the Palestinian Authority issued a statement saying it condemns any action that harms Israeli civilians.