TEL AVIV (Reuters) – A suicide bomber struck Tel Aviv early on Wednesday, killing at least three people and jarring U.S. plans to present a new peace plan after a landmark Palestinian vote for reform.
Hours earlier, the Palestinian parliament approved a new cabinet under reformist Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, but Palestinian militants vowed to defy his agenda of curbing attacks on Israelis.
Israeli police and medics said at least three people were killed and 49 wounded in the attack that battered a pub in Israel’s biggest city in the early hours.
“It was an attack by a suicide bomber who blew himself up at the entrance of a pub called Mike’s Place near the U.S. embassy,” police commander Yossi Sedbon told Israel Radio.
The attack promised to throw a cloud over the planned swearing-in on Wednesday of Abbas’s cabinet in the West Bank city of Ramallah, because it raised the possibility of a severe response by the Israeli army.
Washington condemned the suicide bombing, but said it would not scuttle the peace initiative.
Footage showed medics treating several young Israelis, their shirts stripped off, on the sidewalk outside the pub.
The pub’s entrance was ripped apart by the blast, which twisted the metal supports of its front windows and splattered the threshold with blood. The bar’s sign “Mike’s Place # Blues by the Beach,” remained intact.
“We saw several young men, burned up, coming out of the pub,” a witness told Israel Radio.
Abbas, who in 1993 co-authored interim peace deals since eclipsed by bloodshed, pledged to disarm militants including an armed offshoot of Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction.
“There is no room for weapons except in the hands of the government,” Abbas told the Palestinian parliament shortly before it voted 53-18 to approve his cabinet.
He rejected “terrorism, whatever the source” but did not say how he would stamp it out. He has condemned such attacks as inimical to the Palestinian goal of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Militants, who have pledged to destroy Israel itself, swiftly swore to see off Abbas, who lacks street popularity. Critics insinuate that he owes his rise to U.S. pressure for an end to “resistance” without guarantees of a viable state.
Legislators who voted against the cabinet said they objected to disabling armed “resistance” before the Israeli army had withdrawn from Palestinian cities, and also to Abbas’s retention of Arafat appointees they said were suspected of corruption.
HIGH U.S. HOPES FOR ABBAS
Abbas’s opposition to violence as part of a 31-month-old Palestinian uprising for statehood spurred Washington to seize on him as the man to revive a peace process with Israel in deep freeze for almost three years.
But he laid out conditions for a deal to parliament on Tuesday echoing those of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, whom the United States has unsuccessfully tried to sideline as an alleged obstacle to peace, and long rejected by Israel.
Israeli officials said the Tel Aviv attack heightened the onus on the Palestinian leadership to carry out promises to rein in militants.
“This vicious attack in Tel Aviv serves as a brutal reminder that the Palestinians are continuing with their bloodstained trail of terror,” said David Baker, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.
“The new Palestinian government must realize that fighting terror must top their agenda, that this bloodletting against Israeli citizens must stop now. It is incumbent upon the new Palestinian government to achieve this,” Baker told Reuters.
There was no immediate comment from Palestinian officials.
Before the bombing, the White House applauded the Palestinian parliament vote and said President Bush would soon unveil an international “road map” to peace.
It envisages a Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005 after confidence-building measures by both sides.
A Palestinian Authority crackdown on militant groups behind attacks on Israelis in the uprising for independence is a key part of the “road map” which Washington said would be released once Abbas’s cabinet was confirmed.
Israel has said there could be no move toward a Palestinian state unless Abbas demonstrated real action against militants.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said on Tuesday that Abbas’s pledge to curb militants was a “good start.”
“Abu Mazen and his government will be judged by their actions,” Shalom said in a statement. “If Abu Mazen implements a policy of fighting terrorism on the ground, he will find in Israel a true partner for peace.” (Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg)